IS ANYBODY out there actually opposed to hydrogen fuel cells? Given the universal appeal of this technology, probably not. In theory, hydrogen fuel cells could power not just cars but also buses and laptops, and could even provide heating for office buildings and homes. Hydrogen fuel cells do not require expensive imported oil. They emit nothing except water. No wonder Congress applauded when the president, during his State of the Union address, proposed $1.2 billion in funding for research that might lead to the production of hydrogen-fueled cars.
It's hard to object to this proposal, and, in principle, we don't: Government-funded research in other fields has led to more than one technological breakthrough. We do, however, object to the idea, clearly conveyed in the president's speeches -- on Thursday he spoke of hydrogen fuel cells as a "way to advance into the 21st century" -- that there is something new or radical about this particular initiative, or that it would solve our immediate energy and pollution problems. True, it is more money than was spent the last several times this new idea was proposed. The Hydrogen Future Act of 1996 mandated the spending of a mere $150 million on hydrogen fuel cell research. In 2002, when Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced a big program of research into hydrogen fuel cells, he proposed only $500 million. But although $1.2 billion over five years does sound like more, it isn't quite as much as it sounds: Among other things, that number includes Mr. Abraham's $500 million. "New" funding would in fact amount to only $720 million -- assuming that this doesn't also turn out to be money coming from existing programs.
If the president's initiative isn't new, neither does it represent an especially bold national investment. By contrast, the Apollo space program cost $23 billion -- in 1966 dollars. It is also less than the private sector will spend during the same time period: Toyota alone has been doing research on this technology since 1992. For those reasons, the president's initiative shouldn't be allowed to overshadow other important environmental research, such as work on super-fuel-efficient cars (funding for which the president cut), or to dodge the debates about acceptable levels of air pollution and energy conservation. Not only are there real questions about how soon this technology will become viable, many have pointed out that coal, nuclear energy -- or, indeed, oil -- may be needed to produce hydrogen itself. We may hear tales of "new" hydrogen fuel cell research many times before a true hydrogen-based economy becomes reality -- and we need to make our fossil-fuel economy cleaner and more efficient in the meantime.