August 2010

08.01.2010
Powering Your Plant With Stationary Hydrogen Fuel Cells
(view article)

08.03.2010
Hydrogen Truck Turns Head
(view article)

08.10.2010
Fuel Cell Powered Garbage Truck in Germany
(view article)

08.12.2010
South Carolina Student to Attend Clemson Using Scholarship Winnings
(view article)

08.17.2010
Green Technology Fuel Cell Experts Are In Town
(view article)

08.17.2010
Analysis of South Carolina hydrogen and fuel cell workers views and opinion leadership behavior: A waiting opportunity?
(view article)

08.17.2010
Ohio utility first to use Ballard’s 1-megawatt fuel cell unit
(view article)

08.18.2010
Can Energy Sector Workers Serve as Influential Public Ambassadors?
(view article)


August 01, 2010
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Powering Your Plant With Stationary Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Stationary fuel cells have increasingly been making their way into commercial facilities and institutional facilities. As an environmentally friendly power source, fuel cells are reliable, provide a consistent voltage output, run on various fuels, and produce both electricity and heat. Whether or not an industrial facility is a good match depends on public funding and energy costs in a particular region, as well as the way the manufacturing plant uses the energy.

Electrochemical device
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to produce electricity, heat, and water. Photo courtesy of FuelCell Energy, Danbury, Conn.

Stationary fuel cells increasingly have been making their way into commercial and institutional facilities. As an environmentally friendly power source, fuel cells are reliable, provide a consistent voltage output, run on various fuels, and produce both electricity and heat. Those advantages have led to stationary fuel cell installations in retail stores, telecommunication facilities, hospitals, and schools.

Far fewer examples exist of stationary fuel cells in manufacturing facilities, although energy experts see potential there as well. Whether or not an industrial facility is a good match depends on public funding and energy costs in a particular region, as well as the way the manufacturing plant uses the energy.

Fuel Cells Gain Traction
Proponents say that stationary fuel cell technology is an under-the-radar option whose time has arrived. Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, Irvine, Calif., and co-chair of the California Stationary Fuel Cell Collaborative, Sacramento, Calif., notes that fuel cells are a reliable way to complement the power grid and to provide continuing power to critical circuits if the grid power is disrupted. He said fuel cells can reduce operating costs by providing a way to recover and reuse waste heat. When combined with appropriate power electronics, a fuel cell installation can mitigate voltage sags and harmonics that are harmful to electronic equipment.

Fuel cells produce smaller amounts of greenhouse gases than combustion-based technologies and produce no smog-inducing air pollutants.

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that produce electricity from hydrogen and oxygen and operate continuously on a steady diet of hydrogen or hydrogen-rich fuel such as natural gas. Fuel cell systems comprise of a front end that conditions the fuel, a back end with the power electronics that connect with the customer or the grid, and the fuel cell module itself.

The fuel cell has an anode (a negative electrode that provides electrons), an electrolyte in the center, and a cathode (a positive electrode that accepts electrons). As hydrogen flows into the anode, a catalyst on the anode helps to separate the gas into protons (hydrogen ions) and electrons (see Figure 1). Individual fuel cells can be combined into a fuel cell stack to increase the total electrical output.

Fuel Cell Types
There are several types of stationary fuel cells, four of which have received significant interest for large stationary power applications. They vary in power output, electrical efficiency, and operating temperatures.

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells have a high energy density for their weight and volume. Operating between 50 C and 100 degrees C (122 and 212 degrees F), this fuel cell type starts up quickly and is suitable for load following or for adjusting the power output to meet the power demand in the plant. Terry Howe, manager of solutions engineering for Ballard Power Systems, Burnaby, B.C., Canada, a manufacturer of PEM fuel cells, said the company has targeted chemical companies as a near-term potential stationary application.

Phosphoric acid fuel cells are one of the most mature fuel cells and are among the first to be used commercially. They have a relatively low operating temperature of between 150 and 200 degrees C (302 and 392 degrees F) and are well-suited for load-following applications, according to Bob Tierney, manager of business development and strategic planning for UTC Power, South Windsor, Conn. He said phosphoric acid fuel cells have long stack life—85,000 hours or 10 years of service, up from 40,000 hours five years ago.

Molten carbonate fuel cells operate at 600 to 700 degrees C (1,112 to 1292 degrees F). According to Tony Leo, vice president of applications and OEM engineering at fuel cell manufacturer FuelCell Energy, Danbury, Conn., the high operating temperature of this fuel cell type produces plenty of heat that can be put to other uses in the plant to produce steam, hot water, or chilled water. The high operating temperature also allows for the re-forming process, which extracts hydrogen from natural gas, to take place right in the fuel stack, saving the cost of an external re-former.

Solid oxide fuel cells are the most recent to be commercialized for stationary applications. Historically, solid oxide fuel cells, which operate at up to 1,000 degrees C (1,832 degrees F), have posed significant durability challenges. Yet in February, after eight years of development, Silicon Valley start-up Bloom Energy, located in Sunnyvale, Calif., officially unveiled its Bloom Box solid oxide fuel cell, which the company claims uses low-cost materials and runs on a wider range of fuels than other fuel cell types.

Making Economic Sense
Several factors go into the decision of whether to install a fuel cell, according to Dan Rastler, program manager for the energy storage and distributed generation program at the Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto, Calif. Capital costs of fuel cells are relatively high compared to the retail cost of electricity from the grid, he said. In making a decision, manufacturers need to compare the retail rate (wholesale power costs as well as transmission and delivery costs) of power from the electric grid with the cost of purchasing, installing, and running the fuel cell.
The retail rate of electricity from the grid varies widely from region to region, roughly from 7 to 16 cents per kWh. In general, on-site power generation is more attractive in regions where there is a combination of high electricity rates and low natural gas prices.

Diagram phosphoric acid fuel cell
Figure 2
In this cutaway of a phosphoric acid fuel cell, the fuel processor re-forms natural gas into hydrogen gas, which is fed into the fuel cell stack. In the stack, hydrogen gas and air are combined in an electrochemical process that produces direct current (DC) power, water, and heat. The byproduct water is used in the operation of a power plant. The byproduct heat is available for meeting other requirements in the facility, such as creating hot water, space heating, or cooling. The DC power provided by the fuel cell stack is conditioned to provide alternating current (AC) power output. Image courtesy of UTC Power, South Windsor, Conn.

In several states, including Connecticut and California, net metering—a method of crediting customers for electricity that they generate that is in excess of what they purchase from the utility—can make fuel cells attractive economically.

Joel Rinebold, director of energy incentives for the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology Inc., East Hartford, Conn., said financial incentives exist at both the state and federal levels. The organization will run the numbers for Connecticut companies that are considering installing fuel cells, as well as offer advice on getting the best return on investment. Other states that offer significant financial incentives are New York, New Jersey, and California. On the federal level, opportunities for depreciation and investment tax credits can offset the cost of the fuel installation by 30 percent.
Running a fuel cell as much as possible makes economic sense to pay off the investment sooner. For most types of fuel cells, this practice also reduces wear and tear. “Fuel cells want to run flat out all of the time. They don’t want to cycle up and down like reciprocating engines,” UTC’s Tierney.

Whether a facility can make good use of the electricity and the heat determines whether a it is a good candidate for a fuel cell installation (see Figure 2). The real key in determining whether a fuel cell makes sense is if the plant can make use of the heat that drivesthe reforming process to crack the chemical bonds in the fuel to harvest the hydrogen for the fuel cell, Tierney said (see Real-world Installations).

Those requirements can exist on the process side or to heat the buildings themselves. “Those are questions we draw out with our customers. There is a heat stream, and you can use it for process water, for space heating, for domestic hot water, and for dehumidification,” Tierney said.

Fuel Cells in the Pipeline
David Dornfeld, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability, finds the idea of using fuel cells to power manufacturing plants intriguing, although he thinks that more research is needed for that to happen. “We need to do some studies for heavy manufacturing, places that do machining, casting, and things that use a lot of power, and what kinds of response times and duty factors you can get from fuel cells,” he said.

Meanwhile, new stationary fuel cell projects have continued apace. In February Ballard signed a memorandum of understanding with K2 Pure Solutions, a chemical producer, for a 1-MW PEM fuel cell at its salt-to-bleach plant in Pittsburg, Calif. The fuel cell will convert byproduct hydrogen generated from salt-to-bleach production into base load electricity that will then be used to power K2’s bleach production operation. The same month Bloom Energy signed an agreement for a 500-kW unit in Coca-Cola Co.’s Odwalla plant in Dinuba, Calif. The fuel cell will run on redirected biogas and provide 30 percent of its power needs.

Real-world Installations
Pepperidge Farm. Pepperidge Farm Inc. has installed two hydrogen fuel cells at its Bloomfield, Conn., bakery, which opened in 2003, replacing the company’s original bakery in Norwalk, Conn. (see lead image). One of the tasks when designing the new plant was to investigate distributed power generation to improve the reliability of its power supply and save energy costs, according to Harry Pettit, manager of systems and infrastructure engineering, who proposed the idea of installing the first fuel cell and was deeply involved in the second fuel cell installation.

The company installed the first fuel cell, a 250-kW unit manufactured by FuelCell Energy, in 2006. It partnered with Allentown, Pa.-based Pennsylvania Power and Light, which owned the fuel cell, Pettit said. The unit was supported by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund. The company opted for a fuel cell partly because of the funding and partly because of the cost advantage in electric rates that the hydrogen fuel cell provided, he says. The fuel cell generated electricity for 12 cents per kWh, compared to 16 cents per kWh off the grid.

Pepperidge Farm installed the second FuelCell Energy fuel cell, which generates 1.2 MW of power, at the Bloomfield bakery in 2008. This fuel cell supplies 700-degree-F exhaust air that is captured to create steam. “We put in a heat recovery steam generator and use the steam for 99 percent of the steam needs in the plant,” Pettit said. When the fuel cell operates, the two boilers that were installed with the original plant do not operate. One sits idle, and the other operates in standby mode. In addition, 300 degrees F in excess heat is used for thermal oxidizers which burn off volatile organic compounds from the waste stream of the oven. The oxidizers run at 1,600 degrees F. Pettit sais the fuel cells run steadily. The plant operates six days a week, with one day of scheduled downtime. During that day, the fuel cells continue to run, exporting electricity back to the grid.

The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund contributed $3.5 million to the $6 million cost of the 1.2-MW system, which Pepperidge Farms owns. Pettit estimated that the fuel cell will be paid off in three years. “Without the incentives, we would not have been able to do this,” he said.

Ford Motor Co. Ford has installed a 300-kW molten carbonate fuel cell, also manufactured by FuelCell Energy, as part of its Fumes-to-Fuel system in its Oakville Assembly Plant in Ontario, Canada (see Figure 3). Fumes-to-Fuel is a demonstration project to convert the fumes from the plant’s paint shop into a usable fuel that will power a fuel cell to generate electricity. Ford began work on the system in 2006 and installed the fuel cell portion in 2008 and 2009.

Mark Wherrett, senior environmental engineer at Ford, explained that the Fumes-to-Fuel system introduces the solvent fumes to a fluidized bed concentrator consisting of tiny carbon beads. The solvent fumes attach to carbon in high concentrations. The concentrated solvent is fed into a re-former that breaks the carbon-hydrogen bonds into their original components and puts them together as synthetic natural gas. The natural gas then is fed into the fuel cell that produces electricity.

The Fumes-to-Fuel technology is still a work-in-progress. Ford has commissioned the re-former; the next step is to take the re-former’s output and bring it into the fuel cell. The technology will be evaluated for potential implementation on a larger scale. Theoretically, Fumes-to-Fuel will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 88 percent and eliminate nitrogen oxide emissions compared to conventional technology that incinerates the solvents.

TST Inc. In 2006 TST Inc., a Fontana, Calif., producer of secondary aluminum ingot and billet, installed two 250-kW molten carbonate fuel cells from FuelCell Energy at its plant in Southern California. The company received financial support from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Diamond Bar, Calif., and the California Public Utility Commission’s Self-Generation Incentive Program, Sacramento, Calif.

TST CEO Andrew Stein said the fuel cells, which were set up to operate in parallel with the grid, supplied 50 percent of the plant’s needs during peak power. The electricity was used to run blower motors, fans to run heat-treatment furnaces, and shredders.

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August 3, 2010
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Hydrogen Truck Turns Heads

A sky-blue-and-white Silverado pickup with three big black hydrogen tanks filling the bed was drawing onlookers Monday in front of the Riviera Theatre on King Street in downtown Charleston.

It was part of a Southern Legislative Conference presentation highlighting the progress and the challenges of hydrogen-fuel research.

Hydrogen fuel is expanding into more niche markets, and South Carolina has a network of experts poised to translate that into more state jobs, according to S.C. Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance Executive Director Shannon Baxter-Clemmons.

The alliance is a public-private partnership that includes more than a dozen companies and schools, including the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and South Carolina State University. The group, which also includes the Savannah River National Laboratory and the South Carolina Research Authority, is collaborating to advance the commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

State taxpayers have chipped in more than $12 million for hydrogen fuel cell efforts, while federal, municipal and private sources have invested an additional $115 million in South Carolina.

The Silverado was an early demonstration model, brought out almost three years ago. Hydrogen fuels a modified internal-combustion engine. The major manufacturers have been experimenting with cars that use hydrogen fuel cells and run like electric cars.

Researcher Scott Greenway of Columbia was standing by the truck Monday, explaining to bystanders how hydrogen is more energy-efficient than gasoline and emits only water vapor.

Mike Sandbrink, a tall, burly Kentucky state trooper who reconstructs accidents, stepped up with a question.

"What happens if this thing gets slammed in the rear end?" Sandbrink asked.

The carbon-fiber tanks have been slammed, dropped, even shot with guns without breaking, Greenway said. They have a valve that lets out the gas when severely bumped, and the hydrogen dissipates in the air in about five minutes.

"We have permission to park this under the Capitol in Columbia," he said.

Roy Brandon, a downtown tour guide, stepped up and started taking pictures. "I just like the fact that it's clean out of the exhaust," he said. The hydrogen in the tanks was made from natural gas, a process that emits carbon dioxide, although only half as much as a gasoline engine. Researchers are developing ways to get hydrogen from other sources that don't pollute, Greenway said.

For example, a solar panel can produce hydrogen that can be stored for power. To demonstrate, Greenway is rigging up solar panels and hydrogen cells at Fort Sumter. When the conversion is complete, probably by the end of the year, the Civil War landmark will run entirely on the sun and hydrogen.

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August 10, 2010
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Fuel Cell Powered Garbage Truck in Germany

Heliocentris Fuel Cells of Berlin has announced plans to develop a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell powered garbage truck, together with FAUN Umwelttechnik GmbH & Co. KG, a manufacturer of garbage trucks.

The truck will have a normal diesel engine for propulsion, but when the vehicle is not moving, the diesel engine can be switched off and a 32 kW fuel cell can be used for the garbage collection and management machinery.

The client will be Berliner Stadtreinigung, described as "the largest municipal disposal company in Germany."

Helicentris says that for large vehicles like this, it is not possible to just use battery power, because of the size of the battery that would be required.

"A hybrid storage solution with fuel cells that can use the extremely high energy density of hydrogen is therefore a superior and practicable solution for such vehicles," it says.

"Since municipal vehicles are generally used in fleet operation, the introduction of the necessary hydrogen infrastructure can be implemented at acceptable cost."

A prototype vehicle will be tested out on the road, and could be followed up with a test with a small fleet of garbage collection vehicles.

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August 12, 2010
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South Carolina Student to Attend Clemson Using Scholarship Winnings

COLUMBIA, SC – Local student, Matthew Lee, has been awarded a $100,000 scholarship from Proton Energy Systems at the NHA Hydrogen Conference and Expo. Lee, a senior at the Governor’s School for Math and Science, was one of ten recipients of the prestigious award. "I was surprised, amazed, and honored to receive this scholarship," said Lee, who had spent his summer volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Lee plans to attend Clemson University in the fall to study chemical engineering. “I'm going to use the Proton Energy Scholarship to cover most of the total cost of attendance,” He said.

Every year the Hydrogen Education Foundation awards several scholarships to a collection of applicants. The Hydrogen Education Foundation’s undergraduate scholarship prize can be up to $100,000 total for up to four years. Thanks in part to a one million dollar donation from Tom Sullivan, Owner of Proton Energy Systems, ten finalists received scholarships this year. Lee was among them.

“Matthew is a smart young man and it is fantastic that he has decided to stay in-state for college, when he could probably go to school anywhere he wants,” said Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, Executive Director for The South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance. “The hydrogen and fuel cell economic cluster is about growing the number of jobs in the Palmetto State. We want to create an economy where our kids have the option to work in exciting fields, invent amazing things and change the world from right here in South Carolina."

After graduation Lee is considering going to NC State for graduate school.

About the Hydrogen Education Foundation (HEF)

HEF is the charitable, education‐focused arm of the National Hydrogen Association, the largest hydrogen trade association in the world. The HEF currently administers four hallmark programs: the H2 & You outreach program, the Hydrogen Student Design contest, the H‐Prize Competition and now the Proton Energy Scholarship Program. For more information, visit: www.HydrogenEducationFoundation.org.

About Proton Energy Systems

Proton Energy Systems designs and manufactures proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrochemical systems to make hydrogen from water in a zero pollution process producing safe, pure, reliable onsite hydrogen to meet today’s global hydrogen requirements. Proton Energy Systems has been developing and manufacturing world-class electrolysis systems since 1996, with thousands of units deployed world-wide, on every continent. With a reputation for building robust, reliable, and safe systems, federal, state, and commercial partners repeatedly seek the creative solutions that Proton Energy Systems has proven it is capable of delivering. For more information, visit www.ProtonEnergy.com.

About the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance

The South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance is a public-private collaboration for cooperative and coordinated utilization of resources in the state used to advance the commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

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August 17, 2010
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GREEN TECHNOLOGY FUEL CELL EXPERTS ARE IN TOWN
October 18 at 6:30pm is the exclusive reception for Chamber of Commerce members.

San Antonio – (August 2010) – Fuel cells are a clean and renewable power generation technology that have been around for many years. One of the reasons we don’t see more of them is because we don’t know where to look.

Fuel cells don’t store energy like batteries. Fuel cells make it. And so unlike batteries, you’ll never see a discarded fuel cell that’s gone dead, been discarded, or taking up space in a landfill.

Fuel cells don’t make noise. They’re odor free. They don’t really require anything but the simplest maintenance, and so it’s no wonder most people are unfamiliar with them.

Texans are no strangers to fuel cells. In some applications they’re reducing the operating cost of material handling operations by running forklifts. No battery heavy lifting – and no battery recharging, just ask the warehouse team at H – E – B. Some fuel cells are desk-sized and used as outdoor emergency power backup alongside, or in place of diesel generators. Some fuel cells are wallet-sized and used as portable power in military applications. Or, ask the University of Texas about the microwave-sized fuel cells used as hybrid motive power in buses and transport vans.

Please join the Chamber in welcoming the Fuel Cell Seminar and Exposition back to San Antonio for the Third time.

Two free. Invitation only events are planned for Chamber Members on Monday evening October 18. So please take advantage of one or both of the opportunities to uncover new ways to help you improve your business. RSVPs can be made after September 1st at www.fuelcellseminar.com.

EVENT ONE:
Introductory Seminar • Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center • 5:30 – 6:30pm •
Like any other technology, fuel cells aren’t the answer to every energy question. But if you have questions about integrating fuel cell sustainability into your business, about conserving fossil fuels, about fuel cell implementation or operating costs, fuel cells may be a way to further improve your business.

EVENT TWO:
Reception for Chamber Members • Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center • 6:30 – 8:30pm
The Fuel Cell Seminar Reception will be a chance for you to mingle with fuel cell green energy experts. These folks have real world anecdotes based on real world experience and answers to many of the nagging questions, simple or complex, you might want to ask about how fuel cells could fit into your business.

For more information about the Fuel Cell Seminar in San Antonio visit: www.fuelcellseminar.com

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August 17, 2010
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Analysis of South Carolina hydrogen and fuel cell workers views and opinion leadership behavior: A waiting opportunity?

The current study uses quantitative survey results to explore what a near census of hydrogen and fuel cell (HFC) workers in South Carolina (n ¼ 70) say about their HFC experiences and the degree to which these workers can be expected to act as opinion leaders for the field. In general, these workers say they are positive about the environmental, national security, and economic potential of HFC technologies.

They further see HFC technologies as having small and manageable levels of risk. A number of these workers exhibit characteristics associated with both issue-specific and general opinion leadership. Issue-specific leadership and positive views about HFC technology were associated with higher levels of self-reported technology-related interpersonal discussion.

The study concludes that the existence of workers with positive HFC experiences and a demonstrated interest in telling others about their experiences may represent an opportunity for those charged with promoting HFC development and adoption. Future efforts should explore how HFC workers could be effectively integrated into such efforts as a means of reaching difficult to reach audiences.

To read the study, click the link above that says "view orignal article."

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August 17, 2010
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Ohio utility first to use Ballard’s 1-megawatt fuel cell unit

Ballard Power Systems will deliver the world’s largest hydrogen fuel cell system to an Ohio utility for a five-year trial run.

Fuel cell specialist Ballard said the system is capable of generating up to 1 megawatt of power, enough for 500 homes within FirstEnergy Generation Corporation’ service area.

Ballard said its proton exchange membrane fuel cell system, which will be transported to the utility’s Eastlake plant, can source hydrogen byproducts from chemical plants.

Fuel cells use hydrogen to produce electricity with only heat and water as byproducts. Ballard said it was designed to provide electricity during peak demand.

The entire Cleargen system can be relocated to other sites on a seasonal basis, Ballard said. This means that it can bring power to remote communities far from the electrical grid and be a clean and quiet alternative to diesel generators.

“It’s a huge leap forward and a significant first for Ballard,” said Michael Goldstein, chief commercial officer.

“More importantly, we believe this deal helps ensure that fuel cell technology will be an integral part of the clean energy solution identified as a priority by President Obama,” he said.

Ballard said it has a similar deal in the offing with K2 Pure solutions, which will use the system at its bleach plant in California.

British Columbia-based Ballard (TSX: BLD ; Nasdaq: BLDP ) also has fuel cell systems that power bus fleets, and provides backup power to mobile phone companies.

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August 18, 2010
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Can Energy Sector Workers Serve as Influential Public Ambassadors?

Earlier today, in response to Sheril Kirshenbaum’s query at Discover’s Intersection blog, I spotlighted the key influence of opinion-leaders on energy related behavior. As a follow up, let’s take a look at a new study out this month, co-authored by John Besley, an assistant professor of Communication at the University of South Carolina (and a friend from our doctoral studies together at Cornell.) In the study appearing at the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Besley and his co-author surveyed individuals in the state of South Carolina working in the hydrogen energy sector, evaluating their potential to serve as opinion-leaders on the topic. They reasoned that workers in the energy sector are passionate and knowledgeable, can they also serve as community connectors and go-betweens on the subject? And if so, what kinds of resources should they be provided to be most effective? I posed several questions to Besley in an email about the study and its relevance. Below I have posted the questions and his replies.

Interview with John Besley, University of South Carolina:

What is an opinion-leader?

Opinion-leaders are the people we turn to in our own social circle when we’re trying to figure out what to think about something new. They’re the information junkies that you know will have an informed opinion about some subject that you’re just learning about. Opinion-leaders can be people with jobs that put them at the center of social life such as religious leaders or elected officials but they can also be the mother on the street who somehow seems to know everything about the local restaurants and schools. Pollsters, marketers, and political operatives have long known about the value of courting opinion-leaders. They’re the ones who do the best job showing off new electronic toys, selling Tupperware and hosting coffee fundraisers for up-and-coming politicians.

Why are opinion-leaders important to new technologies, specifically to hydrogen technology?

My sense is that people have some sort of mental image of what hydrogen energy is but it’s probably pretty vague. It’s also potentially wrong if what they think about is the Hindenburg or the explosions at the end of the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. The truth is most of us have very limited contact with hydrogen or fuel cell (HFC) technologies. Unless I walk down to the engineering school here on campus, the only time I encounter HFC technologies is in media stories or when I see an occasional test vehicle on the street. The idea of the current article was to find that small group of people – about 100 in South Carolina – who are working with hydrogen and fuel cell technology in their every day work and find out whether those people have been talking to people about their experiences and to find out what they have to say. My co-author, Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, is in charge of the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance so she has an interest in figuring out whether these workers might be able to help spread the word about HFC technologies in their lives outside of work.

Why do you think science communication research until only recently has overlooked the central role of opinion-leaders?

There’s just so much to study and maybe it’s a lot more obvious to study the impact of regular news media on how people view the world. It makes sense to put a lot of focus there. However, as the field has gotten more sophisticated, I think we have come to (re)realize that to understand public opinion we need to get into the messy business of understanding people’s everyday talk. Studying opinion-leaders is one way to get a handle on what’s happening in those conversations. The media certainly play a part in the process but studying public opinion about technology (or any subject) without looking at personal conversations would be like studying retailing by studying advertising without studying what actually happens in the stores where people actually buy the products.

Do you think opinion-leaders are even more central in today's world of digital and social media?

They’ve probably always been important I just wonder now whether there’s more tools available for the opinion-leader to make their views known, whether it’s Tweeting, posting on Facebook, or writing a blog. There’s also the question of whether people’s social networks have expanded or somehow changed in structure. One thing I know from my own life is that, even though I’ve moved around a few times, it’s easier to stay in touch with people and I still sometimes turn to friends I don’t see very often for guidance. It’s an interesting question but it would be tough to study.

You describe issue-specific opinion-leaders and general opinion-leaders? What's the difference?Why would the difference matter to a public engagement initiative surrounding an emerging technology such as hydrogen?

I think this is partly a question of how we go about measuring opinion-leadership but there’s also a substantive difference between the idea of someone who is generally out there giving advice and the idea of someone who is more focused on specific topics. There’s plenty of overlap between the two groups but for the current study we found that, to identify people willing to get out there and say positive things about hydrogen and fuel cell technology, issue-specific characteristics were more important. Questions used to measure general opinion-leaders focus on things like the degree of agreement/disagreement with statements such as “I enjoy convincing others of my opinion” while issue specific leadership is measured using relative agreement/disagreement with statements such as “My friends often use me as a source of knowledge in discussions about HFC technology.”

What are the important questions that follow-up research in this area should examine?

This study looked at whether opinion-leaders existed within the hydrogen and fuel cell worker community and then explored what these people think about the technology. It turns out the people who say they like telling people about hydrogen and fuel cell technologies are also the ones who are already out there talking to people. The next question is really whether there’s room to help these people out so that they reach more people or to encourage them to focus on specific things. Another question my co-author and I are hoping to be able to do is figure out what messages are most effective in getting people to think about HFC technology in a positive light. In other words, we want to know if technology proponents are better off emphasizing environmental arguments, economic arguments, national security arguments, or some maybe something else. The key is finding out what best resonates with specific audiences.

In what ways is this study useful to an organization, university, or company seeking to engage the public on hydrogen technology?

Opinion-leaders can be powerful voices in communities. Media campaigns don’t always reach very far into society. This also means that it makes sense to hold events like Science Cafés or other outreach events even if they only attract a small group of people. The kind of people who turn up for these things are probably the kinds of people who are telling others about what they heard, creating a potential multiplying effect for outreach efforts. As I noted above, however, there hasn’t been enough discussion about how to mobilize these voices in useful ways rather than just hoping that everything will work out. One obvious question is to ask whether it’s ethical to try and shape these conversations but it’s important to remember is that you’re probably not the only source of information for opinion-leaders. By definition, opinion-leaders are pretty connected individuals so I think working with them puts an onus on communicators to be open, honest and well-reasoned. If you mess with these people, they’re going to tell people what a jerk or idiot you are just as surely as they would have passed along their positive impressions.

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