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Automakers promote hydrogen cars; Obama administration remains skeptical

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Major foreign and domestic automakers that have invested billions in developing a hydrogen fuel cell car say the possibilities are near at hand and that by as early as 2015, the vehicles could begin appearing in showrooms.

“We feel like the technology is virtually ready to go,” said Mike O’Brien, vice president of product planning at Hyundai.

The Obama administration, however, is skeptical at best.

In recent months, it has outraged the technology’s advocates with budget cuts for hydrogen program and renewed the debate over whether hydrogen cars are a pipe dream or a viable means of reducing the nation’s oil dependence.

First it cut the proposed budget for a key hydrogen program for the third year in a row by 40 percent. Then, in a major review of energy technology it touted hybrid and electric cars but was silent on hydrogen.

Last week, in protest, a second member of a federal hydrogen technology advisory committee, Robert Walker, resigned. The first was Byron McCormick, the former director of General Motors hydrogen fuel cell team who also worked on the company’s electric vehicles.

“I resigned because of the closed-mindedness of the administration on these matters,” McCormick said over e-mail; he resigned after the budget was cut the first time. “The dismissive attitude and seeming unwillingness to talk or discuss or even share any real technical basis for believing fuel cells and hydrogen will or won’t work caused me to think I was wasting my time under the current circumstances.

“I just feel sad they’ll be proven so very wrong by history.”

Even as battery electric cars are now being sold by major automakers — General Motors is selling the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan the Leaf — exactly how the nation should reduce its dependence on foreign oil is a matter of heated debate among policy makers, environmentalists and the auto companies.

“It’s a shame how we lurch from one trendy technology to another,” John DeCicco, a faculty fellow at the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute. “It’s premature to bless electricity today, just as it was premature to bless hydrogen five years ago.”

One of the key differences between the two — hydrogen fuel cells and battery electrics — is that the latter can be recharged at homes or businesses. By contrast, with hydrogen, it’s unclear how an equivalent system of refueling stations might be financed, supplied and built.

Battery electric cars are much more expensive to make than gasoline cars of equivalent size; precise estimates from automakers for hydrogen car prices are unavailable.

Arguing that the era of the electric car is near at hand, the Obama administration has placed its bets there. Obama has set a goal of getting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, a shift from President George W. Bush, who touted the hydrogen car.

The Obama administration has supported $2.4 billion in spending for electric vehicle battery and component manufacturing plants and other electric car projects. It has also provided more than $2.5 billion in loans to Nissan, Tesla and Fisker to establish electric vehicle manufacturing facilities.

At the same time, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has raised doubts about the hydrogen car. Before the cars can become much more than an experiment on American roads, the industry might need as much as $55 billion more in government support over the next 15 years, according to industry sources and a National Research Council report. That money would pay for more research and subsidies to build fueling stations.

Last month, the Energy Department issued a 40-page document supposed to identify “important research, development, and demonstration policy choices” and summarize the department’s technology program goals.

The word “hydrogen” does not appear in it.

“We provided a first pass at those technologies that are likely to scale up in time to materially impact the president’s energy security and environmental goals — and do so affordably,” said an Energy Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The administration skepticism toward hydrogen has irked the hydrogen lobby, who note that the automakers are hard at work developing the technology.

Toyota has hundreds of engineers at work on the technology. GM says it has 400 engineers at work on hydrogen in Honeoye Falls, N.Y.

“We know how to build the mousetrap,” said Mary Beth Stanek, environment and energy director at GM. “The costs are coming down. They’re getting there.”

Some automakers, in fact, question the promise of electrics.

“In electric cars, it’s all about the next-generation battery — that no one can define,” O’Brien of Hyundai said. “We wish there was better synergy with government.”

Bill Reinert, national manager in the Advanced Technology Group at Toyota, said that hydrogen is performing “admirably. ... We’ve all said were going to bring our product to market in 2015.

“I think a lot of people in the industry will tell you: We just want a voice. We want you to understand how viable this technology is.”

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