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Researchers have made several major advancements in developing hydrogen and fuel cell technology, but significant challenges remain before hydrogen-powered vehicles become technologically feasible and commercially viable, a panel of experts told the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee yesterday.
Witnesses at a committee hearing said the technologies have the potential to revolutionize the domestic vehicle fleet, but they also cautioned that such a breakthrough may not happen without continued strong support from the federal government.
Energy Department Undersecretary David Garman told the committee that in recent years researchers had made several key technological advancements, including cutting by more than half the cost of automotive fuel cells, doubling the lifetime of an automotive fuel cell stack, extending the distance a hydrogen vehicle can travel without refueling and significantly reducing the cost of producing hydrogen from natural gas.
Still, Garman outlined several key areas in which the industry needs to make progress before the vehicles are ready for mass production, chief among them developing the technology to store hydrogen on board a vehicle without dramatic changes to a vehicle's cost. "We have some technical obstacles to overcome, and we're going to need some time," Garman said. "More money doesn't necessarily help, there is a learning process that needs to happen."
Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) urged Garman and others to move faster, citing the escalating costs of energy and the potential political ramifications of the country's oil dependence. Thomas said it is important for researchers to move as quickly as possible toward putting hydrogen vehicles on the road. "We can't let our laboratory people go on doing tests forever," he said.
Though various research labs have already produced functional hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, they typically run at a cost of about $1 million or more each. Automakers and other experts have maintained that hydrogen vehicles need to cost roughly the same and perform like conventional automobiles to have any chance of catching on with consumers.
Garman's testimony came during the latest in a series of hearings meant to review last year's energy bill. The hydrogen technology portion of the bill authorized one of the largest spending authorizations in the energy bill and since then has garnered significant attention with President Bush making the development of hydrogen technology a major part of his energy agenda.
Congress appears to be moving toward funding many of those energy bill provisions as Senate appropriators recently approved a spending bill that fully funds the administration's request of $289 million in fiscal year 2007 for hydrogen research.
But Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who also chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over DOE spending, warned that even with the major spending appropriation, it is impossible for Congress to fund all the potential research programs. He said federal officials need to choose programs that will make the quickest progress. "We're trying to do it in a way that gives it the best chance of success," Domenici said.
Domenici added that the federal government might want to become a test case for new technologies by moving government fleets toward the alternative technologies -- including hydrogen -- before they are widely accepted by consumers. "If we just leave things where they are ... it'll just be a good subject for discussion," he said. "I think it should be a question of policy."
Private sector officials who testified at the hearing echoed many of the concerns raised by Garman and lawmakers but also urged lawmakers to craft a more concrete plan for adoption of hydrogen technology, including more specific goals for market penetration. "I think we're going to have to have a very good partnership between government and industry ... in making a market," said Byron McCormick, executive director of Fuel Cell Activities for General Motors Corp.