Momentum Builds on Hydrogen Energy Research

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Publication date: 
4 June 2003

There is growing consensus among House and Senate members and the Bush Administration that the United States should move toward the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier, particularly in the transportation sector. Recent hearings revealed significant support for increased spending for federally-sponsored research on hydrogen energy, with this support cutting across political and ideological lines.

It is unusual to hear witnesses from interests as wide-ranging as General Motors and the Union of Concerned Scientists finding common ground on an environmental and energy issue. That was clearly evident at a May 7 hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Transportation and Space. Subcommittee Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS) remarked on the rare level of consensus at the witness table, mirrored in many respects on the other side of the dais. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) described the Administration's position on hydrogen energy as "a breath of fresh air," echoing in spirit many of Brownback's earlier remarks. Brownback called the research "incredibly important," remarking that it will not be necessary to sacrifice either the environment or the economy. Touching on two themes running through both hearings, Brownback cautioned that "there are many miles [to go] before we sleep," adding that the "commitment must be unwavering" to advancing hydrogen research. Dorgan concluded his remarks by stating, "[President Bush said] let's move in this direction. I say you bet."

OSTP Director John Marburger told the subcommittee that "Our ultimate goal is a petroleum-free, emission-free energy future. The President's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, led by the Department of Energy, proposes $1.2 billion for research over five years (including $181.7 million in the FY 2004 budget request) to overcome the key technology hurdles to enable a hydrogen-based economy." There are many such hurdles, as were outlined by DOE Assistant Secretary David Garman in his testimony. Garman described a series of R&D and commercialization targets, ranging from mass-market penetration of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles beginning in 2020 to the transition to a full hydrogen economy by 2040. He repeated President Bush's remarks in this year's State of the Union address that "our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution free." Research is also supported by the Department of Transportation, EPA, DOD, Department of Commerce, NSF, USDA, and NASA.

These sentiments were repeated in a May 20 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. Chaired by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the witnesses at this hearing expressed enthusiasm for hydrogen energy. Byron McCormick of General Motors Corporation declared "Now is the time for the U.S. government and U.S. industry to create a partnership that can lead the world in the charge to achieve this vision. . . . We were given one mandate by our management: Take the automobile out of the environmental debate."

At both hearings there was considerable discussion about the need to capture carbon emissions in the production of an emissions-free hydrogen supply, and about the appropriate level of government funding. Garman's comments seemed to summarize the thinking of many at these hearings when he said, "This is the only technology we know of that can change the game," calling the promise of hydrogen energy the "brass ring."