Driving toward a hydrogen-powered future

John Sheridan stands in a testing lab at Ballard Power Systems.

Geography alumnus John Sheridan (BES '75), CEO of Ballard Power Systems, poses in a Burnaby, B.C. lab where his company's hydrogen fuel cells are tested.

Like many students, John Sheridan went to the University of Waterloo not quite knowing what he wanted to do. He was interested in environmental issues and enrolled in what was then the Faculty of Environmental Studies. In 1975, he emerged with a bachelor’s in geography.

Today, Sheridan is president and CEO of British Columbia-based Ballard Power Systems, one of the world’s leading hydrogen fuel cell companies, which specializes in clean backup power for power stations and motive power for industrial vehicles. It also provides engineering services for automotive companies such as Mercedes-Benz.

Clean energy is “so critical to our future,” says Sheridan. “It’s not just a question of concern that we’re running out of fossil fuels. If we were to never run out of cheap fossil fuels, that would be even worse … We desperately, desperately need new clean energy alternatives and energy technology developments and I think Canada can play a real role there.”

Ballard manufactures hydrogen fuel cells that produce electricity from a non-combustion chemical process. The only emission is water vapour. “It’s the ultimate in clean energy, clean electricity,” says Sheridan.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is proven and efficient, and as hydrogen fuelling becomes more ubiquitous and costs go down, Sheridan sees it as an important piece of solving the energy crisis.

To get to where he is today, Sheridan credits both opportunism and idealism. In one sense, his career path has been “random and opportunistic,” he says, a matter of grabbing chances as they came along.

However, he has always been guided by a youthful decision that there were two broad fields he was interested in working in – green energy and telecommunications. He chose these areas because they were “really intellectually interesting, meaningful to society, and areas that I saw real macro growth in,” he says.

After rising to become president and COO of Bell Canada, he decided it was time to get back to his interest in energy. He became head of Ballard in 2006 and calls it a privilege to work in a field he considers “incredibly meaningful.”

Though it has been years since his time at Waterloo, he says the “environmental thread” woven through his studies influenced him. Courses he took “really made me think about the future and how the world was evolving … Some of those courses really do help you learn how to think and think differently.”