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Why Obama's Inching Away From Hydrogen

"The Obama administration is shifting much of the government's focus and funding from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to plug-in electric vehicles," observes The Detroit News. No kidding. The Bush administration, recall, had a grand plan to put $1.2 billion toward developing vehicles that could run on futuristic fuel cells, which would use mere hydrogen to generate electricity. But with the recent economic-stimulus bill, the Obama administration has stopped ramping up these efforts, instead putting more money toward battery research and funding for plug-in electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt. Is this a smart call? I think so.

Some quick context: There are a number of ways to shift away from the gas-guzzling internal combustion engine, a much-needed move if we care to avoid climate disaster, seeing as how China and India will plop nearly a billion new cars on the road in the coming decades. Fuel-economy standards can be ratcheted way up, but that'll only go so far. Biofuels have problems galore, especially corn ethanol. Transit and rail can help reduce oil dependency and curb emissions, but we're never going to junk the personal automobile completely. So that leaves electric-drive vehicles or hydrogen fuel cells as major transport alternatives. Both options require heavy infrastructure investments and R&D, so it's not clear that we can just "let the market decide." Some sort of government direction will prove critical, which means politicians may have to make some difficult decisions and trade-offs.

Some of the bigger auto companies, incidentally, have long preferred to focus on hydrogen fuel cells. It's easy to see why they're so attractive. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles could be totally clean—emitting only water and heat. And, if the hydrogen is produced with renewable energy, greenhouse-gas emissions would be virtually zero. A fuel-cell car could, theoretically, generate enough electricity for a variety of onboard uses—you could stick everything from a hair dryer to an espresso machine in your car. And, because fuel cells would take up very little space, they'd allow carmakers a lot more design flexibility (right now, manufacturers have to work around the ungainly internal combustion engine, the large radiator, the mechanical driveline, the steering column…)

But hydrogen technology still faces a ton of awe-inspiring pitfalls. The vehicles are still hugely expensive, even compared with the hardly cheap Chevy Volt. Honda is praying it can get the price of a hydrogen car down to $100,000 in a decade. Maybe. Worse, building the fueling infrastructure for hydrogen cars will be insanely pricey: The National Academy of Sciences figures it would take the United States $55 billion of public investment just to get two million hydrogen cars on the road by 2023. (And that assumes manufacturing costs for the cars tumble down.) Then there are the logistical challenges of producing and delivering all that hydrogen. As The Economist recently reported, under the most feasible near-term production methods, which involve natural gas, fuel-cell cars end up creating more emissions than some small gasoline-powered cars.

By contrast, automakers are rolling out plug-in electric vehicles right now. The cars are cheaper and can help curb greenhouse-gas emissions immediately (this is clearly true if the cars are charged using renewable power, though coal is a murkier story). Granted, plug-in electric cars still require government aid if we want to bring them to market rapidly, from battery research to infrastructure support. But they're a lot nearer at hand. Now, some hydrogen critics, such as Joe Romm, have argued that the federal government should abandon nearly all of its hydrogen efforts, save for basic research, and put the money toward more immediate options—including plug-ins. At this point, that's looking like a solid argument.

Flickr photo credit: Kris Kumar

--Bradford Plumer