Senate Approves Bill Restoring Funding for Hydrogen Car Research

The Equinox is a General Motors trial hydrogen vehicle. The automaker has invested more than $1.5 billion in hopes of making the technology a reality.
The Equinox is a General Motors trial hydrogen vehicle. The automaker has invested more than $1.5 billion in hopes of making the technology a reality. (General Motors)
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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009

The hydrogen car may have legions of fervent fans, but Energy Secretary Steven Chu apparently is not among them. Earlier this year, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist essentially zeroed government funding for the clean vehicles and came close to mocking their potential, saying the technology needs four "miracles" before it can become widely adopted.

"Saints only need three," he cracked in a magazine interview.

But the hydrogen car is back. On Thursday, the Senate agreed to restore nearly all the money for hydrogen car research that the administration had proposed to cut. The measure, part of an appropriations bill previously approved by the House, is expected to be signed by President Obama.

"It's the right set of priorities," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a leader in the effort to fund the technology. "If you discontinue the research, you shortchange the future."

In slashing the budget, Chu, an advocate of alternative energy, reopened longstanding questions over whether hydrogen cars are a faraway dream, or as President George W. Bush once said, a technology that could be in showrooms by 2019.

"With a new national commitment . . . the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free," Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Hydrogen car advocates said Friday that the vote to restore funding represented a sensible step toward funding a variety of alternative energy possibilities.

But critics said the vote reflects only the difficulty of killing a government program. The money keeps alive about 190 projects around the country, officials said.

"It's an insult to the American taxpayer to pretend that hydrogen cars are a practical and affordable near-term or even medium-term greenhouse gas reduction strategy," said Joseph J. Romm, a former Department of Energy official in charge of clean-technology programs.

A one-time hydrogen advocate, Romm has since written "The Hype About Hydrogen," a critical look at the industry's prospects.

"I give Chu and the Obama administration a lot of credit for trying to do the right thing," Romm said.

Daunting Obstacles

Before the cars can become much more than an experiment on American roads -- it is estimated that there are fewer than 200 operating in the United States -- the industry may 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 last year. That money would pay for more research and subsidies to build fueling stations.

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