Hitting Potholes on the Hydrogen Highway

If you’re holding out for a new fuel cell car to drive onto the hydrogen highway, you may have to wait a while. The Department of Energy in a new report says fuel cell costs are still too high and durability too low for the auto industry to meet the goal set out in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 of 100,000 hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles by 2010.

The DOE says designs would have to be locked in now in order for fuel cell cars to be manufactured in 2010, and that’s not likely to happen. The agency pointed to an independent study published last year that put the cost of an automotive fuel cell system at around $6,000, even with high-volume manufacturing — more than twice as expensive as internal combustion engines. And you wouldn’t be able to keep that car for too long, either. Based on the highest demonstrated durability to date, the fuel cell systems would only be good for about 57,000 miles. Good luck getting a decent Blue Book value on that car. The DOE has poured$1.2 billion into former President George W. Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative since 2004, and while some progress has been made, the agency said targets have slipped for hydrogen production and delivery systems — the core of any hydrogen highway.

Given the current state of the auto industry in the U.S., car companies are unlikely to put resources into something that isn’t going to pay off in the near term. Plug-in hybrid or full electric cars already have a national electric grid to plug into; hydrogen fuel cell cars do not.

And it looks like the chances of getting clean hydrogen production have gotten a bit slimmer, with R&D in renewable hydrogen production and delivery to be deferred in fiscal 2009. But R&D will continue in coal-based and nuclear-based hydrogen production.

Maybe the DOE should just scrap the whole Hydrogen Fuel Initiative and go talk to the folks at Blacklight Power. They seem to have it all figured out.