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A Lesson for Electric Car Makers in Hydrogen Vehicles' Loss

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For plug-in car and battery makers, there’s a lesson in the Obama administration’s recent decision to pull funding for research of hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles: Don’t rely too heavily on the dole for too long.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, you may recall, formed a cornerstone of what Bush administration officials envisioned as a Hydrogen Economy. These days, many policymakers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs alike are pitching the idea of a Clean Energy Economy, in which we get around in hybrid and electric vehicles that tap renewable energy from a smart grid, rather than the long-promised hydrogen cars.

As DOE chief Steven Chu explained in a briefing on the agency’s budget proposal, “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no.'”

Based on that conclusion, the DOE decided to cut $100 million from its hydrogen fuel cell program for 2010 and start dedicating the research initiative to “fuel cell technologies” for buildings and other applications, with funding cut down to $68 million. (Separately, the agency awarded $41.9 million last month to 12 companies working on portable fuel cells for electronics, and larger fuel cells for both backup power and vehicles.) In a DOE report earlier this year, the agency found that 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 U.S. fuel cell industry is taking the cut as a sign that its energy will be better spent influencing Congress than the Department of Energy. “We aren’t giving up on Dr. Chu,” U.S. Fuel Cell Council executive director Robert Rose told the New York Times Wheels blog. While the DOE has been short-staffed, he said, “Congress will look carefully at this.”

But truth be told, a careful look would find an investment of some $1.2 billion over four years for development of an expensive, far-off technology and zero viable hydrogen vehicles on the market and few stations in the ground (only about 120 nationwide) to show for it, especially when it comes to hydrogen production and delivery systems — the core of any hydrogen highway. As the LA Times Up to Speed blog notes, Chu cited a lack of infrastructure as a reason to pull funding.

Of course, infrastructure remains one of the big missing pieces for mass adoption of plug-in vehicles, too. So now that electric and hybrid cars have curried government favor, the clock is ticking for their developers to cut costs, demonstrate progress — and pay their own way.

13 Responses to “A Lesson for Electric Car Makers in Hydrogen Vehicles' Loss”

  1. ArtM72

    The fundamental problem with hydrogen just seems to continue to escape its mention in published articles…its source and the energy cost to produce it. The “hydrogen economy” was a classic red herring given legs by the petroleum industry which knew the thermodynamics were poor.

    For the screwball who believes the start of hydrogen abandonment by Obama was due to the lack of campaign contributions, well, that’s probably consistant with his faith in intelligent design based creationism. He would do better spending some time learning about the characteristics of the new batteries now going into production whose developement phase from institutions like Argonne is now substantially complete. Great new automotive class batteries are ready to go if you care to make the effort to overturn your longstanding belief that they aren’t.

  2. Josie Garthwaite

    @Jim I agree that it makes more sense to fund technology that’s likely to deliver measurable results in the near future. Ideally that funding can serve as a springboard — helping to get things up and running and then letting them fly on their own.

  3. I agree with Paul and Rockfish.

    The lesson is to pursue a technology that makes sense.

    And the infrastructure issues with PHEVs are tiny compared with hydrogen. We can have 400,000 PHEVs on the road with no changes to the grid at all. There’s lots of grid capacity at nighttime, when most vehicles would be charging.

  4. kent beuchert

    If the only place you can recharge an electric car is your house, you won’t get very far in that exorbitantly expensive paperweight. Duh.
    The problem with having govts trying to influence technology is obvious. Obama obviously has completely missed the lessons from fuel cell subsidies. He thinks money is going to produce a better battery. No, no, brainless one, better ideas produce better batteries. Actually, the MIT advances recently are the biggest thing in battery developnment these days, by far.
    The reason fuel cell were cut was because Obama never got his campaign contribution from the fuel cell folks. Just look at whose profitted from recent admin decisions (UAW, wind industry, solar industry). The UAw, which destroyed the auto industry, is getting their $20 retiree health benefits (non-union GM workers pay for half of theirs while working and get none when they retire). Obama’s decisions are easy to understand. Just follow the money.

  5. Rockfish

    “Of course, infrastructure remains one of the big missing pieces for mass adoption of plug-in vehicles, too.”

    Uh, my house has electricity. How ’bout yours?

    Plug in hybrids offer the advantage of running on electricity or gasoline, both of which have well-deployed infrastructure. The vast majority of private vehicle trips are short, to and from home. All the fuss about not having public charging stations is pointless. You charge at home. If you run out of charge while away, you run on gas. This approach will get us 10 or 20 years down the road with vastly reduced emissions and oil consumption, while the infrastructure and technology for pure EV’s gets worked out.

  6. So what’s the leason? Start off with a viable idea?

    Bush and Hydrogen were a joke from the start, in that order! It was just a BS way to prolong oil revenues and ICE manufacture indefinatley while seeminly doing ‘something’. The ONLY people even in favour of it were Bush, his oil cronies and the auto makers… Everyone on the planet who can add were beside themselves with each announcement that the future would be hydrogen.