Fuel-Cell Backers Criticize DOE Budget Cuts

By AutoObserver Staff February 22, 2011

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President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget boosts Department of Energy spending, especially for electric vehicles, while it drastically cuts hydrogen and fuel-cell research, to the dismay of backers of those technologies. President Obama's proposed fiscal year 2012 budget raises Department of Energy funding to $29.5 billion, a nearly 12-percent increase from the current 2010 fiscal year level of $26.4 billion, and it includes $588 million to stimulate sales of one million electric vehicles by 2015. It also - despite the overall hike and the nod to EVs in general - cuts deeply the DOE's funding for research and development of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, work that could help to build a future market for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

A similar effort last year by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to slash automotive fuel cell research in his 2010 budget proposal was reversed in Congress – but with budget-cutting Republicans in control of the House of Representatives this year, that's not as likely an outcome. For fiscal year 2012, the proposed DOE budget devotes $100 million to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, 41 percent less than the $170 million budgeted for fiscal year 2010. It also eliminates funding of the Solid State Exchange Conversion Alliance (SECA), a DOE-managed program to develop solid oxide fuel cells that would be used as range-extending auxiliary power units in electric trucks.

While the brunt of the cuts would not be felt for a while, there is an immediate effect: raising the ire of fuel cell and hydrogen energy proponents at their annual national conference, which opened last Monday just as the figures were made public and concluded on Wednesday.

"We have hundreds of fuel cell electric vehicles on the roads, and more hydrogen refueling stations in the state of California alone than in the entire rest of the world," said Ruth Cox, president and executive director of the Fuel Cell Hydrogen Energy Association, in her opening remarks. Despite that, she continued,  "America's leadership in fuel cells and hydrogen energy is in jeopardy, because although we have a President who is committed to creating a clean energy economy, his administration has been misguided about the critical role fuel cells and hydrogen energy have to play in its realization."

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The proposed budget cuts make the U.S. less competitive in the global hydrogen energy arena and send "a message to American industry and the world that fuel cells and hydrogen aren't viable near-term options for America's clean energy portfolio," she said.

Noting the Obama administration's pursuit of battery, solar and wind power generation, Cox also declared that "the funding to sustain our current leadership in fuel cells and hydrogen technologies is modest" by comparison, and she noted that fuel cells can complement other means of power generation by providing "a conversion and storage mechanism to make excess power available as hydrogen to fuel vehicles."

Rhetoric from the Obama administration that portrays hydrogen energy and fuel cells as far-off technologies is the biggest challenge to the industry's' progress in the U.S., and the actual budget cuts are secondary, Cox said in an interview with AutoObserver Green. She also emphasized the need for funding to grow the nation's hydrogen vehicle refueling infrastructure "in front of the automobiles and buses," and said the deployment cost of this infrastructure is about equal to that of a charging infrastructure for plug-in EVs. The budgetary setback notwithstanding, FCHEA remains undeterred, Cox said. The organization is already working with Congress to seek restoration of the cut DOE funds as well as additional money for the promotion of FCEVs. 

Byron Dorgan Fuel Cell.jpgFormer Senator Byron Dorgan - a long-time proponent of EVs as well as of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies - was another conference speaker who criticized the Obama administration for these DOE budget cuts. "Even though there's more pressure for budget cuts" now than in earlier years, said the North Dakota Democrat, "you know and I know there's going to be money for energy research. The question is what research?"

The $70-million cut in hydrogen and fuel cell R&D funding doesn't cover two hours of U.S. government expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dorgan argued. He said he disagrees with Chu's assertion that hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies are too far out into the future to be worth spending on today.
  
John Hofmeister, CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy and formerly president of Shell Oil Co., didn't address the hydrogen cuts specifically, but criticized both Congress and present and past administrations for not adopting and implementing a national energy policy. A long-term energy policy would have given the nation a path to follow and eliminated a lot of the political machinations by fans of various alternative energies, he said.
 
"We can't continue to be the world's largest economy relying on the 20th century energy system that got us to where we are," Hofmeister said. "What have we accomplished in the first decade of the 21st century toward a new energy system? I would argue that we are worse off today than when we started this century, in terms of replacing the 20th century energy system, because we have no plan. We don't know where we're going and we don't know how to get there," he added.

Still, whatever comes of U.S. government spending on fuel cells and hydrogen energy, FCHEA's Cox said the organization is heartened that the Obama administration wants to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles in general. Her organization believes fuel-cell electric vehicles are better suited than battery-electric vehicles in many cases to meet consumers' expectations for range, refueling time, and vehicle size and weight.

Moreover, she expressed confidence that automakers will continue to pursue the technology regardless of the federal budget outcome, and noted that nine  - Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Renault - already have pledged to commercially deploy FCEVs by 2015. -- Robert E. Calem

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