March 25, 2009 at 10:42 am

Fed auto focus shifts to electric

Government funding swings from hydrogen fuel cell technology to electric vehicles under Obama.

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is shifting much of the government's focus and funding from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to plug-in electric vehicles.

In 2003, after the Clinton administration spent $1.5 billion on a hybrid-electric sedan, the Bush administration touted $1.2 billion for hydrogen technology. Now, with Barack Obama in the White House, the pendulum is swinging back to plug-ins.

U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., chairman of a House subcommittee, said at the panel's hearing Tuesday that the Energy Department's vehicle research program "has been a victim of drastic swings in priority between administrations.

"As the (Obama) administration develops its own policies, I hope that we will avoid again putting all of the eggs in one technology basket."

As a candidate, Obama touted plug-in electric vehicles as a cornerstone of his energy policy, pressing for 1 million plug-ins on American roads by 2015. The $787 billion stimulus bill approved by Congress last month includes more than $2 billion in new battery research grants, which are vital to the viability of plug-ins, but no new money for hydrogen research.

General Motors Corp. is to start building its extended-range Chevrolet Volt next year; Chrysler plans to have 500,000 electric vehicles on the roads by 2013. Ford Motor Co. also is working on an electric vehicle program.

Steven Chalk, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said the Obama administration is deliberating how much of the proposed 2010 budget's vehicle research program should be channeled to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

In the 2009 fiscal year budget, Congress allocated $273 million for vehicle technology research compared with the $213 million in the 2008 fiscal budget.

But Chalk acknowledged at Tuesday's House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing that to be successful, the U.S. needs a "critical mass" of advanced vehicles, saying lithium-ion batteries show significant promise.

"We want diversity, but we also want critical mass. If we're going to address these problems (of dependence on foreign oil), we eventually have to build something," Chalk said, adding the government has to "pick some winners so to speak and go with our best shot."

The National Hydrogen Association, whose members include GM, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Daimler AG and BMW AG, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu Feb. 27 asking him to allocate up to $700 million from advanced energy research grant programs for hydrogen-related research. The government and automakers "have made significant technical progress over the last few years in proving that hydrogen and fuel cells offer a critical component of the domestic, oil-free high efficiency very low emissions industries we all seek," said the letter signed by Jerry Hinkle, the group's vice president for policy and government affairs.

Hinkle said Tuesday the association had more work to do to convince the Obama administration.

"Part of the rap is that hydrogen is a left-over Bush administration idea, and that's baloney," he said.

Kathryn Clay, research director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing Detroit's Big Three, and eight other automakers, said the Energy Department should work to "advance a diverse array of vehicle technologies."

In the current budget year, $148 million is allocated to hydrogen research, though the Energy Department has shifted some of it into broader research applications.

Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, said he's been "skeptical" of hydrogen research for some time in large part because of the lack of hydrogen filling stations and the cost of creating a supply network.

"I'm not opposed to the use of hydrogen fuel cells. I think it'd be wonderful, but we have immense problems to overcome there," Ehlers said.

The stimulus bill includes $300 million to boost the number of alternative fueling stations, including hydrogen.

Automakers have unveiled small test fleets of hydrogen fuel vehicles. In Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York, GM has deployed a fleet of 100 hydrogen fuel cell-equipped Chevrolet Equinox vehicles under its Project Driveway program. BMW recently completed a global test of 100 hydrogen-powered BMW 7 series cars; Honda has a small test fleet of FCX Clarity cars it is leasing to customers in the U.S.

Honda's vice president for government and industry relations, Ed Cohen, said "there is a natural focus on technologies that are perceived to be shorter-term than hydrogen," but that "hydrogen is a long-term solution, and there'll be peaks and valleys in terms of the level of interest."

You can reach David Shepardson at (202) 662-8735.