Earlier this summer, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an afternoon hearing to review the implementation of the Energy Policy Act on research and development on hydrogen and fuel cells. Testifying at this July 17 hearing were Under Secretary of Energy David Garman and four witnesses from private industry.
Describing a hydrogen-based transportation economy as "a very tantalizing prospect for those who are interested in using less foreign oil, or less oil of any kind, and who are concerned about clean air," Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) began the hearing by describing the hundreds of millions of dollars that corporations are spending on hydrogen fuel cell research and development.
President Bush has proposed a five-year, $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, which includes an FY 2007 request of $289.5 million. Most of this funding is designated for the Department of Energy's Energy and Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, with other funding designated for the Office of Science, the Fossil Energy program, the Nuclear Energy program, and a relatively small amount for the Department of Transportation.
In his testimony, Under Secretary Garman offered an upbeat review of DOE's hydrogen program. Garman outlined progress that has been made since 2003, such as reducing the high volume cost of automotive fuel cells from $275 per kilowatt in 2002 to $110 in 2005. The lifetime of the automotive fuel stack has been doubled, small distributed natural gas reformers have become much more economical, and "superb progress" has been made "on perhaps our most difficult technical challenge" of storing enough hydrogen on a vehicle to give it a 300-mile cruising range. "In sum, we are on track to meet our 2010 and 2015 technical goals. However, we're not there yet," said Garman. For instance, the high volume cost of automotive fuel cells must be reduced to $40 per kilowatt to be competitive with the internal combustion engine, and durability will have to increase from the current 2,000 hours to 5,000 hours to achieve parity with conventional automobiles. Garman said the Energy Policy Act "will help us tremendously" in meeting the Initiative's goal of the market introduction of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2020.
The senators attending this hearing - Alexander, Craig Thomas (R-WY), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) - all expressed considerable interest in the status of fuel cell R&D. In his comments, Domenici stated that his FY 2007 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill provided the full $289 million request for the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, something which he called "a very worthwhile expenditure." The senators asked about the production of hydrogen through coal gasification, DOE's support of high risk research, the participation of automotive suppliers in the administration's Freedom CAR program, coordination with the FutureGen program, stationary power production, and the role of federal government procurement in creating markets.
Garman made an important point about what will be required to advance this technology, saying "I will also tell you that we have been asked in the past, how could we speed this up? And we've been asked by folks from the White House to the Congress and elsewhere, and the answer is we need time . . . more money doesn't necessarily help. There is a learning process that needs to happen."