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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Leaving Hydrogen in the Dust

Air Date: Week of

Jim Motavalli about to test drive the Nissan EV. (Photo: Remy Chevalier)

Energy Secretary Steven Chu reversed the Bush administration’s pro-hydrogen fuel cell vehicles agenda. Many in the hydrogen industry are appealing but as Jim Motavalli, author of Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars, tells host Steve Curwood, the surge of electric vehicles promises a quicker payoff.


CURWOOD: The Bush Administration made a big commitment to the development of hydrogen fuel cell cars, but the Obama Administration has now proposed slashing that budget by nearly 60 percent.

With us now is journalist Jim Motavalli. He wrote ”Forward Drive: the Race to Build Clean Cars” - he also blogs for the New York Times. I asked him what’s knocked hydrogen cars out of favor.

MOTAVALLI: Well, electric car recharging networks are really getting started. There’s a bunch of companies entering that arena and signing agreements with cities, towns, states, even whole countries to wire them up for electric cars. The infrastructure is king. Once you have recharging stations, you can have electric cars. I think we’re actually seeing that revolution happen. The hydrogen revolution, the joke is its always twenty years away, and unfortunately it still is. The fuel cell was actually invented around 1850. And there’s always been the potential of fueling automobiles with hydrogen. Jules Verne – he actually thought that we would have hydrogen cars and horses on the road together.


MOTAVALLI: So, we’ve always known that hydrogen had, you know, a lot of energy potential. But making it practical for a vehicle has been a daunting task.

CURWOOD: We’ve talked to some people at the National Hydrogen Association and the California Hydrogen Business Association – seems like they didn’t see this coming.

MOTAVALLI: I don’t think anybody saw this coming. It was really a surprise to a lot of people, the National Hydrogen Association, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council. They issued a joint statement. I think they were pretty shocked by it, because they had just asked for something like 1.2 billion in the stimulus money. And Secretary Chu had just funded something like 43, 44 million dollars in hydrogen projects. So it looked like he was on the team. And then, abruptly, he was not.

CURWOOD: How are they hydrogen developers taking this news?

MOTAVALLI: I think they’re really angry about it. They are trying to lash out and there was just a very high profile resignation from the Department of Energy’s hydrogen advisor committee, Jay Byron McCormick, who’s the former executive director of General Motor’s fuel cell program just sent Energy Secretary Steven Chu an email critical of the agency’s decision. He said he couldn’t in could conscience remain on the committee. And I think the hydrogen advocates think if they can get together in a room with Chu they might be able to persuade him to change his mind.

CURWOOD: Now the hydrogen advocates, the National Hydrogen Association and those folks says that Secretary Steven Chu is, well, he’s misinformed about fuel cell technology, that in fact, its well advanced and that it would not be wise for the U.S. to jump out of the race at this point. What are some of the accomplishments that are already on hydrogen’s mantle place?

MOTAVALLI: Well, I think they’ve gotten the California Fuel Cell Partnership up and running, and they’ve made a whole lot of advancements. John Hanson of Toyota told me, and I think this is true, that hydrogen has made more advances over the last four or five years than battery cars have. They cars themselves have gotten very sophisticated, really, really fun to drive, and they use space really well. They’ve made the fuel cell very compact so you have lots of storage space and the cars are probably better to drive than battery cars right now.

CURWOOD: Jim, just for folks who might be confused here – what’s the difference between a battery car and a hydrogen car. They’re both electric vehicles.

MOTAVALLI: Yes, they are indeed both electric, and the hydrogen car uses an electric motor to get around. So they’re both electric, but the hydrogen car uses a fuel cell to convert hydrogen into electricity using a chemical process. So, instead of the battery you’ve got the fuel cell. And it has the possibility of more range, because battery cars are still somewhat challenged as to range.

Jim Motavalli with the Nissan EV. (Photo: Remy Chevalier)

CURWOOD: When Arnold Schwarzenegger was running to become governor of California he talked about having a statewide hydrogen highway by 2010. So, I guess at this point we’re looking to just another Bridge to Nowhere.

MOTAVALLI: Yes, they have built some hydrogen stations in California, but I think they ran into the budget realities. California has huge budget shortfalls and I think Schwarzenegger probably has other priorities right now rather than building the hydrogen highway. They have appropriated some money recently to build a few more stations, but its not the whole highway and I don’t think we’re gonna see that.

CURWOOD: Now, well, we’re getting out of the hydrogen business. There are other places that are moving forward with it. I mean, Norway is still moving on down that hydrogen highway. What is the risk to America about getting left in the dust on this technology?

MOTAVALLI: Hydrogen advocates are making the case that we should move forward in all fronts. They’re not really bad-mouthing electric cars. They say we need to be ready for any form of technology that could possibly come to the front. I think there’s a point to be made with that, but the government does have to set priorities. And I would say that right now electric cars have come to the forefront and that has pushed hydrogen back a little bit.

CURWOOD: Jim Motavalli writes for many blogs including the New York Times, and is author of the book “Forward Drive: The race to build clean cars.” Thanks so much, Jim.

MOTAVALLI: Great to be on.

[MUSIC: Hydrogen: Ce’u “Canagote” from Canagote EP (Six Degrees Records 2009)]



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