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Hydrogen car R.I.P. Secretary Chu agrees with Climate Progress and slashes hydrogen budget

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"Hydrogen car R.I.P. Secretary Chu agrees with Climate Progress and slashes hydrogen budget"

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“We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said in a briefing today. He cited several barriers, including infrastructure, development of long-lasting portable fuel cells and other problems.

For years now, I have been urging the Department of Energy to slash the bloated hydrogen budget and redirect the funds toward clean energy technology development and deployment programs that could actually achieve significant benefits for the American public in the foreseeable future (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P.” and “DOE flushes $15 million down the hydrogen toilet“).

Well, finally, we have somebody running the Department of Energy who gets how unproductive this whole effort has proven to be.  Nobelist Steven Chu has rolled out a FY2010 budget that cuts $100 million from the program.  Indeed, the budget (see page 4 here) zeroes out the “hydrogen” program and shifts all the money to “fuel cell technologies.”

I’ll blog on the rest of the remarkable FY2010 budget for clean energy shortly.  Here is how E&E News PM (subs. req’d) reports Chu’s remarks today on hydrogen and transportation in his budget:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu today said he sees little promise in hydrogen-powered cars in the coming decades as DOE released a proposed fiscal 2010 budget that slashes programs for developing the transportation technologies.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said in a briefing today. He cited several barriers, including infrastructure, development of long-lasting portable fuel cells and other problems.

The budget proposal would trim more than $100 million from the hydrogen program in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, cutting it to $68 million for fuel cell research and development and steering the program away from areas related to transportation.

But the budget increases funding for other vehicle technology programs, including electric vehicles, lightweight materials and biofuels. “We are shifting resources,” Chu said. “We are saying in the next 10 or 20 years, what is the most likely thing that will happen, what will actually get us on a lower-carbon emissions path.”

President George W. Bush called developing hydrogen-powered cars a priority, touting it heavily during his first-term as a way to curb pollution and reduce oil import reliance.

Another technology head-fake by Bush bites the dust (see Bush wanted to destroy the future of coal as much as the industry did, Futuregen was “nothing more than a public relations ploy,” House study finds).

Kudos to Chu for not just accepting the big increase in technology funding he was given — but for shifting resources and making the best use of all the taxpayer’s money.

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16 Responses to Hydrogen car R.I.P. Secretary Chu agrees with Climate Progress and slashes hydrogen budget

  1. Rick Covert says:

    Good riddence! I speak as a former big booster for hydrogen fuel cells until I saw, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” and read Joe’s book “The Hype About Hydrogen,” only to realize that there was no future in the near term and probably not in the long term for hydrogen powered cars.

    Unfortunately, Bush squandered the technology lead we did have in the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles program and sunk federal funds into an expensive greenwashing sharade.

  2. Brendan says:

    It’s about time. When I first heard about GM’s push with the Hydrogen “skateboard” back in 2002 at a presentation they put on at the University of Arizona, it sounded like a good idea. It didn’t take much time on the internet to realize it wasn’t, and should have just been called a pressurized-hydrogen-air electric vehicle. It had all the hurdles of an electric vehicle (range limitations, drive-train cost, energy storage device cost), plus a few more (lack of infrastructure, potential contamination of the unsealed fuel cell system, cold pressure storage issues) and only solved one problem (refueling time). How was this better than a battery electric car? How this idea lingered for years and with significant enthusiasm dumbfounded me. For the record, I now own a converted battery electric car that fuels up in my garage. I’m still waiting for the first hydrogen fueling station to open up around me.

  3. Scatter says:

    Finally.

  4. ecostew says:

    Yes – it only works in very small niches e.g., an abundance on geothermal energy. The EROEI/CF, in general, is disgusting. It was a Bush distraction.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Great job Secratary Chu – thanks Joe for highlighting this.

    Now, for the Hydrogen boosters, if Hydrogen really is a viable technology, after 8 years at the government trough with serious amounts of money (way, way, way more than BEV’s or PHEV’s) it should be able to come out on its own via the market – piece of cake at this point. ;-)

    Its nice to see the stake for this research dollar vampire be driven in. Another distraction pushed aside. God, its good to see this stuff happening.

  6. Cutting back on funding for hydrogen powered cars is probably a good decision given there are better ways to spend our money. I wouln’t shortcut a future hydrogen economy just yet, though.

    Just a few years ago the National Academy of Sciences estimated that a hydrogen economy was feasible by mid century. At that time, I asked a prominent member of the academy to be more specific. He estimated it would take about 60 years before we would see a hydrogen economy.

  7. Jay Alt says:

    Fuel cell technologies, hmm. It would be prudent for Chu to consider putting some money in a long-range effort to make high temperature fuel cells. Those could be used with biofuel, natural gas or future CCS plants; hopefully giving efficiencies close to that of co-gen, but producing more electricity rather than process or district heat.

  8. Sasparilla — You say: “Its nice to see the stake for this research dollar vampire be driven in. Another distraction pushed aside.” I agree, and commend you for so adroitly phrasing it.

    What research dollar vampires remain? Hot fusion, supercolliders, string theory, CO2 sequestration … these are just a few that come to mind right now. Let’s hope Secretary Chu will keep pounding.

  9. Bonnie says:

    Every time I see the phrase, “hydrogen fuel cell car,” I see red. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HAVE A FUEL CELL TO RUN A CAR ON HYDROGEN. Hydrogen works fine in internal combustion engines and has been doing so in modified engines since the fifties.

    There is an argument for hydrogen, furthermore. Electricity generated at night is pretty much wasted. If that electricity were used to generate hydrogen to add to our fuel supply, that would justify hydrogen-fueled cars. Not fuel cell cars, however–internal combustion cars. Fuel cells are not suitable for powering cars.

    With all the options out there, I’m not saying we should switch to hydrogen. I just think hydrogen has gotten a bad rap.

    [JR: Sorry, but the only reason the DOE or car companies were ever interested in hydrogen was the possibility of using it to power a high efficiency zero-tailpipe emission vehicle. No fuel cell car, no hydrogen economy.]

  10. john says:

    I disagree with Chu’s decision to remove Hydrogen R&D out of the 2010 budget, but if the US isn’t aggressive with a hydrogen technology plan, other countries will lead. Instead of buying oil from other countries we will be buying hydrogen, hydrogen technology, and related products in the future. Shortly fuel cells will cost less due to low cost replacement catylsts (removal of platinum/paladium precisous metals) and we should be making use of all energy sources as we diversify.

    Centralized power and a new smart grid is very important, but adding decentralized power generation is also key to our energy independence. As we install more Wind and Solar farms we will need to Store and Move energy short-term without a smart grid and that equates to using Hydrogen Generators local to the installations. By producing decentralized power with today’s Solar and Wind Hydrogen technology, we will over time, diversify our sources and remove transportation costs out of the cost equation. This Hydrogen could be then delivered to local distribution stations or stored for use in fuel cells for stationary and mobile applications. You just shouldn’t plan massive Solar and Wind expansion projects without this kind of storage and distribution plan component. Hydrogenics (HYGS) is one of the key companies supplying these Hydrogen Generators and Fuel Cells, now involved in several like projects outside of the US. Today’s technology for today’s decentralized power.

    [JR: Sorry, H2 is a dreadful energy storage medium compared to electricity. The cost is 3x or more but the round-trip efficiency is 1/3x or less. So it is an order of magnitude worse.]

  11. john says:

    Your (JR: ) comments really show you don’t understand the usefulness and fit of the hydrogen technology, i.e. Hydrogen Generation and Fuel Cell use. You can’t compare the ‘electric grid’ to ‘hydrogen’ as a storage medium. Energy is not stored in the ‘electric grid’. Yes, hydrogen power is more expensive than coal (not counting the environmental impact) but when your producing domestic clean energy, both Solar and Wind, you need to store and transport this energy and the grid is not yet smart and is not available in areas where these farms are being developed. Coal and Nuclear energy is all still needed along with hydrogen to make Solar and Wind energy portable. Eventually hydrogen technology will be available at a lower cost and will keep more dollars in the US rather than exporting dollars for oil.

  12. Bonnie says:

    [JR: Sorry, but the only reason the DOE or car companies were ever interested in hydrogen was the possibility of using it to power a high efficiency zero-tailpipe emission vehicle. No fuel cell car, no hydrogen economy.]

    What tailpipe emissions would come out of a car running an internal combustion engine on hydrogen?

    [JR: If you don't know that, then you aren't much of an advocate of H2 ICE. Try Google.]

  13. Bonnie says:

    [JR: If you don't know that, then you aren't much of an advocate of H2 ICE. Try Google.]

    Okay. Here are the first four results of a Google search:

    http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=9250
    “Using clean-burning hydrogen as a fuel, H2ICE emissions are a fraction of those from conventional gasoline engines. The primary exhaust product is pure, clean water vapor. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the vehicles are reduced by 99.7 percent. Those remaining result from the small amount of engine oil present in the cylinders of modern engines. It would take more than 300 H2ICE vehicles to emit the same amount of CO2 as one gasoline-fueled vehicle.”

    http://machinedesign.com/article/a-closer-look-at-hydrogen-0206
    “Because there is no carbon in hydrogen fuel, engines burning it emit almost no carbon monoxide or CO2.”

    http://www.rps.psu.edu/hydrogen/industry.html
    “Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engine (H2-ICE): This internal combustion engine runs on hydrogen. The vehicle stores the compressed gaseous hydrogen in three tanks, and a supercharger increases the efficiency of the engine. It burns fuel more readily than a gasoline engine and produces nearly no pollutants.”

    http://www.hybrid-vehicle.org/hybrid-vehicle-ice.html
    “According to Ford spokespersons the H2ICE’s can easily hit Sulev emissions (Sulev Bin 2 or Tier 2 emissions standards) , or better, and more than 99% reduced CO2 vehicle emissions. Performance is comparable to gasoline, while fuel economy increases up to 25% with the engine only and up to 50% better with an aggressive hybrid-electric strategy. ”

    In other words, for all practical purposes, zero emissions.

    Odd, though, that you would reply to my obviously rhetorical question by implying that I’m ignorant. I’m not an “advocate of H2 ICE.” I don’t know what the ultimate solution is to our transportation problems. I just get tired of hearing hydrogen dismissed because of fuel cell development problems. Fuel cells, in my opinion, don’t belong in cars. But maybe hydrogen does. It’s worth further exploration.

    [JR: The short answer is NOx. You sound a lot like an advocate. Your questions did not sound rhetorical to me. The thing to remember about hydrogen is that hydrogen generation and transportation is unbelievably inefficient, so nobody would bother doing it to just run it through an unbelievably inefficient engine. It kills the entire rationale for converting some fuel to hydrogen in the first place. Hydrogen has been "explored" to the tune of $2 billion by the ederal government in the past eight years alone, and several times that by car companies. That's why it's dead. All the plausible strategies have been tried.]

  14. Tomlin says:

    I think you are all missing an important point. Please try to think of hydrogen as the perfect common carrier or vector of all forms of clean (non-carbon) energy when the need for energy is not grid-connected. Yes, it is expensive right now and efficiencies are not 100% but with time and work, we’ll have a sustainable medium, which is totally harmonious with nature’s systems, while costs gradually decrease as efficiencies gradually increase. The technology will get more powerful as costs come down, as they did with the development of computer technology.

    I truly think we are making a big mistake to abandon this very promising, perhaps our only, solution to the need for an energy vector that is benign and clean and virtually infinite. Just because the Bush administration gave it lip service shouldn’t mean that the Obama team kisses this beautiful baby goodbye and leaves it to fend for itself (and there many companies that will keep going even without the US government). This technology is still in its infancy and needs our help. And we need all our options on the table, even if “the hydrogen economy” seems like a long shot to some.

    Implementing this technology, in conjunction with a clean and powerful grid, offers our best hope for reducing greenhouse gases. Please take another look. The Energy Evolution Report on the National Hydrogen Association’s website: http://www.hydrogenassociation.org

    Thanks!

  15. Bonnie says:

    Tomlin has a good point. A good use of hydrogen would be to capture electrical energy that would otherwise be wasted, such as from hydroelectric power at night. In that case, it doesn’t matter how inefficient it is to generate hydrogen. The hydrogen is pretty much a freebie.

  16. Mark Mathias says:

    I work for GM and lead automotive fuel cell research efforts. I develop technology and business case trajectories for fuel cell and plug-in-hybrid electric (FCEVs, PHEV) vehicles. Whereas biofueled PHEVs make a lot of sense and do not suffer the electricity->H2->electricity inefficiency, getting to durable and affordable batteries still is risky. I personally agree with the DOE’s current emphasis on near term solutions and agree that the Bush administration and automakers have been guilty of unreasonable expectations for FCEVs timelines. However, the uncertainty in the respective long-term business cases are still larger than the differences. Until the near-term PHEV option is proven to be commercially viable, it is too early to kill work on the FCEV option. I feel the new DOE position, effectively pulling the plug on all FCEV work, is extreme and unwise. US FCEV research efforts risk being unwound, whereas our foreign competitors will likely continue. If FCEVs end up with a winning business case, we will be buying the technology from Japan, Korea, or Germany. We need a more balanced policy.