General Motors' fuel-cell Sequel: State of the art.
Hydrogen is hitting hard times, and the Obama Administration has lost faith in fuel cells (if it ever had any). Energy Secretary Steven Chu has put the brakes on hydrogen research, cutting more than $100 million for it in the 2010 budget (leaving only $68 million specifically for fuel cells).This has big ramifications for carmakers with heavy investments in fuel cells, including General Motors, Honda and Toyota. GM, in particular, has dug deep into the technology, fielding a fleet of more than 100 Chevrolet Equinox-based fuel-cell cars around the country and, at least until recently, talking about having production-feasible technology by 2010. The crisis at the company has quieted the talk.
Honda's FCX Clarity is also state-of-the-art, and a number of celebrities, including Jamie Lee Curtis and husband/film director Christopher Guest, have had temporary custody. These test programs make nice headlines, but Chu is hardly alone in concluding that the hydrogen energy economy is still a distant dream. "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.'"
GM reacted swiftly to the bad DOE news. According to the company's fuel-cell champion, Vice President Larry Burns, "We continue to believe that hydrogen is a key to solving the nation's mid- to long-term issues of energy security, reduced petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions as well as being part of the reinvention of General Motors. There is significant progress being made in hydrogen research and vehicle development, and we have logged more than 750,000 miles in the industry's largest demonstration fleet of 115 hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes. Project Driveway consists of real fuel cell vehicles being driven by real people."
GM spokesman Alan Adler says that the House and Senate may take a second look at Chu's cuts. "We have to wait and see what Congress will do," he said.
The author at the wheel of a Chevy Equinox fuel-cell car.
At a recent Washington, D.C. Volkswagen forum, Dr. Jurgen Leohold, VW's chief executive director of research, pointed to the fleet of Chinese-made fuel-cell Passats that the company recently fielded at the Olympic Games in Beijing. At the forum, journalists were given rides in a pair of smooth-riding fuel-cell Caddy Maxi vans.
Despite all this, Leohold was fairly downbeat about the fuel-cell future. "The production and distribution of hydrogen is unsolved," he said. "We do not see large-scale industrial maturity before 2020."
The National Hydrogen Association and the U.S. Fuel Cell Council were none too pleased by the mammoth funding cut. They said in a joint statement: "Fuel-cell vehicles are not a science experiment. These are real vehicles with real marketability and real benefits. Hundreds of fuel-cell vehicles have collectively logged millions of miles."
Back in December, the Council had asked Obama to appropriate $1.2 billion for hydrogen. And Chu had seemed to go along, pledging April 15 to provide $41.9 million in stimulus funding for fuel cells "to expand the use of clean and renewable energy sources and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil." What a difference a month makes!
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