US Fuel Cell Council's Rose discusses hurdles for hydrogen technology under Obama DOE

With the House and Senate both voting to reinstate funding for hydrogen fuel cell technology R&D, the Obama Administration has come under fire for initially proposing to cut the funding. During today's OnPoint, Robert Rose, executive director of the US Fuel Cell Council, discusses the hurdles facing hydrogen vehicle technology as a result of the Department of Energy's lack of support. He explains how the issue has become politicized and talks about his industry's plans for working with DOE. Rose also discusses the timeline for wide scale deployment of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Robert Rose, executive director of the US Fuel Cell Council. Bob, thanks for coming on the show.

Robert Rose: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Bob, the Obama administration recently moved to cut funding for hydrogen fuel cell research. Countering that move the House has passed the Energy and Water Appropriations Act that included an amendment that would restore the funding. It sounds like your industry is about to dodge a pretty significant bullet. Is it crisis averted or are there still some hurdles that you're looking at to overcome?

Robert Rose: Well, our industry wants and believes that it deserves a place in the national energy strategy and that we have not yet accomplished. I think what we've demonstrated is there's a tremendous amount of support on Capitol Hill and it's quite broad given the fact that the House actually approved a floor amendment to increase the amount of money for fuel cells. So we've, I think, established that there is a lot of support out there, both political support and support in the business community, but we need to sit down and work with DOE to get the program back on the table.

Monica Trauzzi: So, how much money are we talking here?

Robert Rose: Well, the House approved about 160 million; the Senate approved about 190, so in conference they'll probably work out something we hope closer to the Senate number. That's still a little short of what was spent in 2009, but it's pretty close.

Monica Trauzzi: Energy Secretary Steven Chu's reasoning behind cutting the funding was that he and DOE don't believe that hydrogen technology is going to play a significant role in the next 5, 10, 20 years in the U.S. Where do you see the timeline for wide scale deployment of this technology and make the case for putting the money in now to see the benefits in five years?

Robert Rose: Well, all of the advanced transportation strategy, all of the advanced vehicle strategies are long-term. I mean we sell 50 million cars every year worldwide, so any beginning of tens of thousands of cars or even hundreds of thousands of cars is not really going to move the needle very much for a decade or two. So from that perspective, I think all of the advanced technologies are in the same boat and that would include fuel cells and hydrogen. I think what's perhaps missing from the analysis at the DOE is that you can't get to our national energy goals and our national climate change goals without fuel cells and hydrogen. This is a zero emission fuel. There can be a zero emission fuel. It doesn't rely on either electricity exclusively or other fuels exclusively. It's a very flexible fuel and the cars are very attractive and fun to drive.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, when President Bush was in office he hyped hydrogen. The Obama administration has a different take on automotive technologies that might be successful. They have put a lot of emphasis behind electric vehicles. Does this sort of shifting between administrations, pro hydrogen, against hydrogen, how does that affect your industry and other automotive technology industries?

Robert Rose: I hope this is not a decision based on the change in political leadership. The hydrogen program has always been a bipartisan program and we've always had very strong support from Democrats as well as Republicans, not least of them Senator Byron Dorgan who's of the leaders in the Senate, Congressman John Larson who's one of the leaders in the house. So this is a program really that focuses on the place for fuel cells in the national energy strategy. There has been a lot of talk and there may be some folks in the Obama administration who thinks that they're like striking a Republican program, but I think in large part that's not the case and we have kind of a factual discussion that we need to have we DOE rather than a political.

Monica Trauzzi: The phrase we hear constantly from those involved in the auto industry when talking about technology is that the government shouldn't pick winners and losers. Are the rules different for hydrogen? I mean what's the case here?

Robert Rose: Well, there are people who would argue that focusing just on other kinds of electric vehicles and on biofuels does pick winners by excluding hydrogen. The fact is, if you look at the factual situation it's too early to pick any winner. The advanced batteries are here, but the right batteries aren't yet and they're still too expensive. Somebody from Honda mentioned that in order to match the performance of the current Honda fuel cell vehicle they would need two tons of batteries onboard, so there's development that's needed there. On biofuels, we all know that case that we're pretty much at the edge of our comfortable capability with corn ethanol. So the next round of biofuels is going to take some technical development and a lot of money to put into place, so all of these technologies still need development. All of them have their place to play in achieving our national energy goals and excluding one to the benefit of the other two, I think, is at least premature and I would argue it's unwise.

Monica Trauzzi: A commitment to hydrogen would require significant infrastructure changes. Is that something we can feasibly look at and do in the next 10 or 20 years considering the current economic downturn and how long it might actually take the U.S. to recover from that?

Robert Rose: Sure, it costs about $160 billion every year to support the current gasoline infrastructure. The National Academy of Science has estimated that spending maybe 500 million a year on hydrogen infrastructure over the course of the next couple of decades would get that infrastructure to the point where people would be making money, so we're talking not so much about money, but about the allocation of resources. And I would argue it's the same with the other advanced technologies. All of those technologies require new infrastructure. A plug-in hybrid vehicle, for example, requires a charger that would cost maybe $900 or even $2000 for a more powerful one in every home. Not that you shouldn't do it, but the cost of that infrastructure is not zero, so we're all kind of in the same boat. All of the pathways are going to cost about the same amount of money and I think all of them are going to be needed in order to get to our climate change goals and our energy security goals.

Monica Trauzzi: So, your expectations for Detroit as the auto companies are restructuring, are they going to step back from hydrogen and focus more on the plug-ins or do you see a role for hydrogen in their programs as well?

Robert Rose: Well, it's a little mixed and it's influence a little bit by the state of regulation in California, but the companies that are investing in hydrogen and fuel cells right now, Honda, Toyota, General Motors, Daimler, the Korean companies like Kia, Volkswagen, that's a lot of, if you'll excuse the expression, a lot of horsepower. And those companies seem not just to be committed to fuel cells, they seem to be increasingly enthusiastic if you look at the reports that are coming out from industry spokespeople. Let me say one other point on the infrastructure, if we don't do this other people are going to. Germany has a plan to put a thousand hydrogen stations in place by 2020 I think it is. And that suggests to me that that's a bit of competition here. Daimler already has a production line in Germany that runs these cars out in small numbers now, but they have plans for 100,000 vehicles a year. So it's not a question of whether this will happen I think so much as it is a question of where it will happen and when it will happen and whether we're going to have to buy our fuel cell vehicles from somebody else or make them here in United States.

Monica Trauzzi: And that's always the question, isn't it? All right, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Robert Rose: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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