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The Hydrogen Car Gets Its Fuel Back
Congress Restores Research Funding That Administration Wanted to Cut

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.

By comparison, the amount appropriated Thursday is meager: $187 million. But even that level of government support has critics, who say the possibilities and benefits of the technology have been wildly exaggerated.

One of the essential arguments for hydrogen fuel-cell cars is that they may provide the best means of reaching the goal of emission-free vehicles.

The cars, which are fueled with hydrogen gas, operate by combining the hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, which drives the engine. Water vapor is the car's only emission.

"It was just a pleasure to drive, smooth all the way and quiet," said Donald Lewis, a Fairfax County resident and retired tech company executive who drove one of General Motors's trial hydrogen vehicles, an Equinox, for five months. "Government should play a role in getting hydrogen moving. Why do we have a Department of Energy if they're not going to get this country off of foreign oil?"

Yet doubts about hydrogen cars arise because there remain daunting obstacles regarding the cost and practicality of building the cars and creating a network of refueling stations.

In its report last year, the National Research Council said the technology needs to meet "very substantial challenges." Or, as Chu told Technology Review, it needed "miracles," involving the way hydrogen fuel is derived, stored and distributed. He also said more work needs to be done to develop the fuel cells.

Cost is also a critical issue. Though GM, Toyota, Honda and Daimler all have hydrogen fuel research programs, none is close enough to announcing a price. Some of the experimental vehicles being used cost upwards of $300,000, partly because they are not built in mass production.

Investment in Hope

Currently there are only about a few dozen places in the United States where a hydrogen car can refuel. The stations cost about $2 million to build.

Despite these obstacles, some automakers and governments have invested billions in hopes of making the technology a reality.

GM has invested more than $1.5 billion.

"It's not that far out there," said Charles Freese, GM's chief of fuel-cell activities, said of the technology's prospects. Freese, noting that the weight of the engines has been significantly reduced and the need for precious metals halved, said a hydrogen car could be commercialized by 2015.

In the 2003 State of the Union Speech, Bush proposed spending $1.2 billion "in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles."

The governments of Japan and Germany also are investing hundreds of millions in the technology, with the Germans aiming to build 1,000 stations by 2015, according to auto industry sources.

"We're grateful to the Congress for seeing the value in continuing this work," said Jerome Hinkle, vice president of government affairs for the National Hydrogen Association. He added that the administration has since seemed to moderate its opposition to hydrogen cars.

"They've made peace with it," he said.

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