The following is a guest essay from Bob Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council. This essay responds to Joseph Romm’s Gristmill post, “Flush! Department of Energy flushes $15 million down the hydrogen toilet.”


Joe Romm’s recent post, “Flush!” disparages the Department of Energy’s award of a number of projects aimed at improving hydrogen storage technology. Joe’s animus towards hydrogen is well known, if regrettable. Rather than quarreling over a tiny fraction of the U.S. research budget, everyone who is serious about a solution to global warming ought to embrace this research, along with research into biofuels and batteries. We will need all these pathways to succeed — every one. And each of the options still faces significant challenges.

For an enlightening analysis of just why we need to pursue all the pathways, see the recent National Academy report, Transitions to Alternative Transportation Technologies: A Focus on Hydrogen (July 08).

In a nutshell, the report concludes that while all the major options face substantial hurdles, even with success in biofuels and hybridization, we still will need hydrogen and fuel cells to achieve our policy result.

I am also mystified at the battery proponents who would pursue that form of energy storage, but reject out of hand storage of energy in the form of hydrogen. The similarities ultimately are greater than the differences. The challenges are also similar. Why should people who care about global warming insist on limiting research to only a certain subset of potential solutions?

Looking past the vitriol, here are the main points Joe raises, and my response.

  • No demand for fuel cell vehicles. Joe is wrong here. Honda, which has begun leasing an extraordinarily desirable fuel cell vehicle, reports more than 65,000 inquiries within a few months of its announcement of availability. People will and do want these cars. More broadly, people want good, fast, capable cars that are affordable. The auto industry’s challenge is to meet those combined expectations with its products, no matter where the motive power comes from.
  • Cost share of 20 percent is not enough. With one minor exception, the awards were to research institutions, where 20 percent cost share is pretty standard — they complain about paying that much. The 20 percent for non-profit institutions has been federal policy at least since the Energy Policy Act of 1992.
  • Money for hydrogen research should be reallocated to cellulosic biomass and batteries. At least Joe recognizes that batteries and biofuels face daunting challenges worthy of a commitment of substantial federal research dollars. But a better strategy would be to increase funding for all the pathways with significant prospects. Barack Obama got it right when he proposed $150 billion over 10 years. Even this number is trivial in light of the dollar cost of oil — $150 billion would cover the cost of eight months of U.S. imports from OPEC at $100 per barrel. There is no future in like-minded people quarreling over the few crumbs that represent our energy research budget today.
  • What’s left after the researchers take their share should be spent on deploying plug-in hybrids. Advocates estimate that plug-ins will cost $10,000 more than conventional cars if and when they hit the marketplace. If the feds covered the entire cost delta, the $300 million hydrogen budget would only deploy 30,000 plug-in hybrids, not much in a passenger vehicle market that regularly tops 15 million annually. In fact, the federal government already is and certainly will be supporting deployment of hybrids. They will need the help.

Joe’s proposal implicitly recognizes that plug-ins are not viable yet in today’s marketplace, even with gasoline at $4 plus. But none of the options is “commercially viable” today. All of us who care about global warming are hoping desperately that plug-ins can get to the marketplace with the performance and cost that will attract real customers and not coincidentally provide some benefits to society to hold the fort until fully capable EVs (battery or fuel cell, or more likely, both) come online.

Just a couple more inconvenient truths about hydrogen and the alternatives:

  • There are more fuel cell vehicles on the road today than plug-ins by a factor of 10.
  • Hydrogen today can be manufactured for $3 per gallon equivalent, and the effective cost is less than $1.50 when efficiency is factored in.
  • Honda’s newest vehicle has been certified by EPA at more than 80 miles per gallon equivalent.
  • Sure, we will need to invest in infrastructure, but we would need infrastructure for biofuels — hundreds of plants — and deep subsidies. We would also need charging infrastructure — not to mention a refurbished power grid — for plug-ins if they ever capture significant market share. A recent study by some Harvard business school types estimated sales of plug-ins in the “thousands” in 2030. I hope they are wrong.

On the other hand, the National Academy study calculated that $8 billion in federal support would be sufficient to jump start a national hydrogen infrastructure — a very encouraging number, indeed.

But the most telling argument in favor of hydrogen is that both the alternative pathways Joe Romm advocates require the combustion of fuels onboard vehicles, with all the attendant emissions, inefficiencies, noise, and so on. Only dedicated battery EVs and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would allow us to break our combustion habit and fully electrify our vehicle fleet. Neither option is commercial at the moment. Research is complementary — better electric drive trains yield benefit both pathways, better batteries mean better FCVs.

It’s too soon, and bad policy, to pick a winner.