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Hydrogen cars still decades off
Scripps Howard News Service


May 19, 2005

Critics of President Bush's energy policies are urging Congress to scale back his much-touted hydrogen-car research program in favor of existing technologies that can reduce U.S. energy dependence and cut global-warming pollution now.

Two years ago, Bush launched a five-year, $1.2 billion program to develop a commercially viable hydrogen fuel-cell car "so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free." He's now asking Congress to increase funding for the program by $500 million.

jpg hydrogen-powered car

The Nissan Xterra FCV was one of several hydrogen-powered cars on display at the National Building Museum on Feb. 6, 2003, shortly after President Bush announced his five-year, $1.2 billion hydrogen-fuel-cell research program. SHNS photo

Congress is even more gung-ho on hydrogen. The House energy bill authorizes $4 billion over five years for hydrogen research and another $1.3 billion for a new-generation nuclear reactor that would produce hydrogen for cars as well as electricity. The Senate, which is at work on its version of the measure, allocates $3.8 billion to hydrogen.

However, many scientists and energy experts say it has become clear that it will take decades to overcome the significant technological and infrastructure hurdles facing commercialization of hydrogen cars - if they can be overcome at all.

"I think the hydrogen research should be cut radically and we should be spending the resources on encouraging the utilization of technologies that are either already developed or very near commercialization and production," former CIA Director James Woolsey said.

Hydrogen-powered cars are "a nice dream - it's worth spending a bit of money on as an R&D project - but as a principal focus for the next generation of vehicles, I think it was wrongheaded when it was adopted and I think it's wrongheaded now," Woolsey said.

Woolsey is part of a bipartisan coalition of former defense and other high-level administration officials, political leaders and environmentalists urging dramatic action to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Studies last year by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society concluded that commercially viable hydrogen cars would take considerably longer - about 20 to 30 years - and cost more to develop than had been anticipated.

"That sobered up a lot of people," said Joseph Romm, author of "The Hype About Hydrogen" and a former acting assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. "When people look at this objectively I think they understand we're talking decades."

"If you are concerned about energy independence, if you are concerned about global warming, we can't wait that long," Romm said.

Similarly, researchers are about 20 years away from producing the kind of high-temperature nuclear reactors envisioned by the Department of Energy for the large-scale production of hydrogen - again assuming technical hurdles can be overcome.

The administration is still aiming for commercialization of hydrogen cars by 2020, Energy Department spokesman Tom Welch said.

"The main rationale for this hydrogen program is that eventually we're going to need a substitute for petroleum," Welch said. "We're envisioning a petroleum-free transportation sector, a hydrogen economy. Of course, while we see the hybrid cars as a logical mid-term solution to reducing petroleum consumption, eventually we're going to need to find a substitute."

Environmentalists say the pollution-free hydrogen fuel that the Bush administration envisions for future cars should come from sources that don't produce radioactive waste that remains toxic for generations or generate greenhouse gases.

However, the emphasis in the administration's hydrogen program has been on producing hydrogen from natural gas in the short term and nuclear power and coal in the long term. Among the unanswered questions are what to do with the nuclear waste and how to prevent carbon emissions from coal and natural gas.

Raising fuel-economy standards for today's cars, increasing incentives for hybrid-gas-electric cars, funding research to allow "plug in" hybrid cars powered primarily by electricity and promoting alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel would reduce foreign oil dependence faster, critics said.

"We don't object to using R&D to do either basic research or research into something that may be in the distance," said Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. "What we object to is failing to do something now and using the R&D as a shield against doing something responsible today."


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