Cut in Federal Fuel-Cell Financing Is Criticized by Proponents

On Monday, the Energy Department proposed a fiscal 2012 budget that would increase financing for wind, solar, geothermal and battery technologies, but cut spending on hydrogen technology by nearly $70 million, roughly 40 percent of the program’s 2010 budget of $174 million

The cuts have renewed a heated confrontation between the department and fuel-cell advocates, who successfully counterattacked when Energy Secretary Steven Chu proposed $100 million in cuts to the hydrogen program before President Obama’s 2010 budget went into effect.

Of greatest interest to automakers who have committed research and development resources to hydrogen fuel cells are the 2012 budget’s proposed cuts to the Fossil Energy Office’s stationary fuel-cell program. In a Feb. 14 briefing, Mr. Chu called the new cuts a “tough choice,” saying that producing fuel cells is “actually the easiest part.” The greater challenge, as he saw it, was “where the hydrogen is going to come from.”

Patrick Serfass, vice president of the Hydrogen Education Foundation, the arm of the National Hydrogen Association that provides scholarship and educational opportunities to students, called the budget reduction “extremely unfortunate.”

“They call hydrogen a long-term technology, but automakers are aiming for sales and leases in the 2015 time frame, and fuel cells as stationary and back-up power are here now,” he said in a telephone interview. Companies including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and FedEx are fuel-cell customers, he said; their warehouse forklifts were some of the first testing platforms for fuel-cell technology.

Pete Barkey, a spokesman for the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, an industry trade group whose members include General Motors, BMW and Shell Oil, said in a telephone interview that the military is also exploring fuel-cell technology. “It makes no sense to walk away from hydrogen right now,” he said. “The rhetoric doesn’t make sense.”

The fuel-cell industry’s Congressional allies argued successfully to restore hydrogen financing to $174 million in the 2010 budget. Those forces are again circling the wagons. On Wednesday, the House Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus held a briefing for members of Congress and also organized a Washington ride-and-drive event that included a Toyota Highlander fuel-cell vehicle, the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, Honda FCX Clarity and new entries from Hyundai and Kia.

Hyundai introduced its third-generation Tucson ix Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle in Washington this week. The prototype achieves a reported range on compressed hydrogen of more than 400 miles and a claimed 76-percent efficiency improvement over the previous prototype.

In a telephone interview, Scott Fosgard, a spokesman for General Motors’ fuel-cell program, called the Energy Department decision “disappointing, because the technology is maturing and we’re close to achieving a market for fuel-cell vehicles.”