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Senate restores funding for hydrogen car research

October 17, 2009|Peter Whoriskey | Whoriskey writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — The hydrogen car may have legions of fervent fans, but Energy Secretary Steven Chu apparently is not among them. Earlier this year, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist essentially zeroed government funding for the vehicles and came close to mocking their potential, saying the technology needs four "miracles" before it can become widely adopted.

"Saints only need three," he said in a magazine interview.

But the hydrogen car is back. On Thursday, the Senate agreed to restore nearly all the money for research that the Obama administration had proposed to cut.

This year's revival of government funding is unlikely to end the dispute over the vehicles, however. Before the cars can become ubiquitous -- it is estimated that fewer than 200 are operating in the U.S. -- the industry may need as much as $55 billion more in government support over the next 15 years, according to industry sources. That money would pay for research and subsidies to build fueling stations.

By comparison, the amount appropriated Thursday is meager: $187 million. But even that level of support has critics, who say the possibilities and benefits of the technology have been wildly exaggerated.

One of the main arguments for hydrogen cars is that they may provide the best means of reaching the goal of emission-free vehicles. The cars, which are fueled with hydrogen gas, operate by combining the hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, which drives the engine. Water vapor is the car's only emission.

Yet there are doubts because there remain daunting obstacles regarding the cost and practicality of building hydrogen cars and creating a network of refueling stations.

"It's an insult to the American taxpayer to pretend that hydrogen cars are a practical and affordable near-term or even medium-term greenhouse gas reduction strategy," said Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official and onetime hydrogen advocate.

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