Congress Likes Fuel-Cell Cars; Toyota Says They Could Even Be Cheap

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Hydrogen fuel cells are potentially the future of automobiles. (Photo: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock)

Defying the will of President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the hydrogen fuel-cell community is demonstrating its clout by convincing Congress to restore funding — and at the same time promising affordable vehicles in the near future. Could companies be producing a million a year by 2030?

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve $153 million for hydrogen and fuel cells as part of the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program. Chu’s 2010 budget had called for just $68 million, down from $168 million in 2009.

At the same time, a full Senate vote on $190 million in hydrogen funding could come at any time (though it may be delayed until after the August recess). If the Senate approves that level of spending, reconciliation of the two amounts will probably leave hydrogen about where it was last year.

There isn’t really an anti-hydrogen lobby, but if there was, it would be headed by former-Energy-Department-official-turned-blogger Joseph Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen, who says, “There are only three sure things in life — death, taxes, and you’re never going to buy a hydrogen fuel-cell car. Congress should stop wasting your money pursuing Bush’s phony dream.”

Toyota isn’t so sure about that. At a recent University of Michigan conference, Justin Ward, advanced powertrain program manager of the Toyota Technical Center, told Ward’s Auto (no relation), “Everyone thinks fuel-cell cars are zillion-dollar vehicles. We have some confidence the vehicle released around 2015 is going to have costs that are going to be shocking for most of the people in the industry. They are going to be very surprised we were able to achieve such an impressive cost reduction.”

Byron McCormick, for many years GM's fuel-cell chief until his recent retirement, agrees that costs can come down dramatically. He said in an email message to MNN, "The cost part can be amazingly low if the early-generation capital costs can be reduced throughout the entire supply chain and there is enough volume to dilute those costs across many vehicles. If with a focused/agressive effort Toyota pulls into their 2015 offering all we know is possible, then I do believe the costs would be surprisingly lower than the skeptics or public at large would expect."

Praveen Kedar also agrees. He's General Motors group vice president for advanced vehicle development, and he thinks Nissan is also a “very aggressive” player in hydrogen, as is Hyundai/Kia (for the Korean home market). The company could have 1,000 fuel cell cars on the market by 2012, 30,000 by 2018, and a huge million a year by 2030. Kedar also said Toyota is counting on 90 percent cost reductions in fuel cell stacks to get prices significantly down.

Fuel cells lost a powerful ally with the recent retirement of General Motors R&D; Vice President Larry Burns, because he’d carried the ball for “the reinvention of the automobile” with hydrogen (and promising to develop affordable ready-for-market technology by 2010).

In an interview, Burns said GM’s hydrogen work would continue unabated under successor Alan Taub (who had run GM’s far-flung science labs). “We’re staying on track, but GM, which has invested $1.5 billion since the 1990s, can’t pay for [its fuel-cell work] all by itself.” He called for Congress to reverse Chu’s decision, and must regard the current Congressional action as a welcome retirement present. “It’s not a done deal yet,” he cautioned. And, indeed, it is not.