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Hydrogen hopes: Can they restore funding for fuel cells?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu “zeroed out” hydrogen funding, but a small band of advocates want to restore the cuts.

A Honda FCX fuel-cell car: The end of U.S. funding? (Credit: Honda)
Fuel-cell advocates are none too happy about Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s abrupt decision earlier this month to cancel $100 million in hydrogen funding.
In a joint statement, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council and the National Hydrogen Association said, “The cuts proposed in the DOE hydrogen and fuel-cell program threaten to disrupt commercialization of a family of technologies that are showing exceptional promise and beginning to gain market traction. Fuel-cell vehicles are not a science experiment. These are real vehicles with real marketability and real benefits. Hundreds of fuel-cell vehicles have collectively logged millions of miles.”
The groups had asked for $1.2 billion in funding, but now the tally is down to $68 million for stationary fuel cells to be used as backup power. But the advocates think he can still be reasoned with. Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, says he thinks the energy secretary has been too busy to focus on hydrogen, and he hopes Congress will reverse the decision. “We aren’t giving up on Dr. Chu,” he said.
Chu evidently got an earful at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Subcommittee May 19. According to Dr. C.E. “Sandy” Thomas, a passionate hydrogen advocate who heads H2Gen and was in attendance, Chu took some flak. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said he was “stunned” by the flat funding for hydrogen, calling it a “significant mistake” that was “not a smart thing to do.” He said he will “do everything we can to restore the program.” Dorgan also said that the program was 10 years old, preceding George W. Bush’s occupancy of the White House, and had been making significant progress.
Also offering complaints, though not about hydrogen, was Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who complained that Chu was not returning her calls. More to the point, J. Byron McCormick, GM’s former fuel-cell chief, resigned from a DOE hydrogen advisory group when the funding cut was announced. “As I thought about the decision, how it was worded, and the fact that the budget was zeroed, I didn’t feel I could in any way appear to be supportive,” he said.
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May 26, 2009 - 4:45 PM No Comments

Funding for hydrogen cars fizzles

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George Bush spoke of his commitment to hydrogen fuel cells as the obvious and inevitable replacement for oil.

“With a new national commitment,” he said, “our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”

Assuming you’ll still be able to get a drivers’ license at age 16, that would suggest Bush thought hydrogen fuel cells would begin powering our cars by 2019. He spearheaded about $1.2 billion in proposals for hydrogen research, which would be funded over a period of years. Even so, Bush’s critics complained the funding was inadequate.

Certainly it was more adequate than what we have now. President Barack Obama, as part of sweeping budget cuts, has whacked the lion’s share of Bush’s proposed funding. Obama will trim the $169 million per year in funding of fuel-cell and hydrogen research down to $68.2 million, which — on paper, at least — will save about $100 million.

Perhaps even more important than the $100 million in savings — a comparatively insignificant amount given the total federal budget — the cut sends a message, loud and clear: This administration doesn’t believe in the future of fuel cells for transportation. The research money left will be dedicated to “fixed” hydrogen-fuel-cell research, essentially small power plants that would produce household current.

Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, likely the man most responsible for axing the funding, thinks hydrogen is just too far from being viable as a fuel for cars and trucks. Said department spokesman Tom Welch: “The probability of deploying hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years is low.”

Those in support of hydrogen fuel cells argue the probability just got lower. An executive with one auto manufacturer who declined to be identified because the federal government “is still the hand that feeds us” suggested Obama’s fuel-cell-funding cutback “could be viewed as shortsighted.” The lion’s share of research expense has been funded by manufacturers, but with even usually flush companies such Toyota and Honda reporting losses, it’s hard to blame them for cutting back on research that could take decades to justify.

So if it makes sense for private companies to trim spending on hydrogen fuel cells, doesn’t it make sense for a similarly struggling public government to cut back? Unfortunately, it does. When gasoline was $4 a gallon, it seemed more appealing. At just more than $2 a gallon, far less so. That’s arguably shortsighted, too — does anyone really think we’ll never see $4-a-gallon gas again someday? — but right now, it seems logical.

How do hydrogen fuel cells work?

To oversimplify, a fuel cell converts the chemicals hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process it produces electricity. In an automotive application, the power from the fuel cell runs an electric motor, so in essence, you are driving an electric car that makes its own power.

No one is suggesting it doesn’t work: Most every major manufacturer has experimental hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles on the road. Honda is the most visible: The company is in the process of delivering 200 FCX Clarity fuel-cell-powered cars to customers in Southern California, clustered around three Honda dealers and near hydrogen refueling stations.

Other manufacturers have been showing fuel-cell-powered show cars for years. Among them was the promising Chrysler ecoVoyager concept vehicle, which debuted at the 2008 North American International Auto Show as sort of the minivan of the future.

The ecoVoyager would be powered by an electric motor, with power primarily supplied by a lithium-ion battery pack capable of satisfying a consumer’s typical daily commute of less than 40 miles. The ecoVoyager would have a small hydrogen fuel cell to extend the vehicle range for occasional long trips.

What’s the big challenge?

Foremost is establishing a network of hydrogen refueling stations comparable to our current gas stations. And someone would have to produce and transport the hydrogen to those stations. Hydrogen must be stored on a vehicle under extreme pressure, at least 10,000 pounds per square inch, raising safety concerns. And most hydrogen fuel cells use platinum as an integral part of the process, and platinum is expensive.

Supporters argue there are ways around many of the perceived problems but, frankly, no one is listening to them. In this recession, so many of us are worried about what will happen in the next week, not the next decade. Too bad, sure, but it’s the reality.

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May 26, 2009 - 12:01 PM No Comments