The true costs associated with fuel cells are not yet clear—either from a capital or operating perspective. Present costs are well above conventional technologies in most areas, though this depends slightly on the type of fuel cell and the market area in which it may play a part.
The economics of fuel cell systems are also different in different market niches. The fuel cell has the potential to usurp many traditional technologies in a variety of markets, from very small batteries and sensors to multimegawatt power plants. Each system has very different characteristics and will accept very different prices. For example, a laptop battery substitute that could run for 20 h instead of 2 h could command a high price, especially if it could be refueled in seconds from a canister rather than recharged over several hours. At the other end of the scale, the potential for building modular power plants in which maintenance can be carried out on each module without shutting down the system is worth a significant amount of money to the owner.
Traditional economic calculations have suggested that the fuel cell system for large-scale power generation needs to be less then $1500/kWe before it will be competitive, while the fuel cell system for automobiles and mass production must be competitive with the internal combustion engine at $50/kWe or below. That said, it must be remembered other drivers exist for the technology, including environmental benefits, and an issue of increasing strategic importance for many counties, namely a reduced reliance on oil. Some fuel cell systems will sell themselves at $10,000/kWe, however, if they can be installed where there is currently no available technology capable of meeting requirements.
However, it is clear that all fuel cell costs at present—and these are estimated at anything between 500 and 10,000 dollars per kilowatt (a mature technology such as a gas turbine costs about $400/ kWe)—are high because they are representative of an emerging technology. Once in mass production, recent estimates predict costs of $40 to $300/kWe for PEMFCs for transport applications, depending on assumptions regarding technology development. It is clear that both further technical innovation as well as mass manufacture will be needed to compete solely on a cost basis with the internal combustion engine.
High-temperature systems tend to be more expensive as they require significant investment in associated balance of plant, but should still be able to be manufactured for close to $600 per kilowatt, not far from the current price for a gas turbine or gas engine.