Energy Bill Sets Production Goals for Fuel Cell Cars

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) has successfully attached an amendment to the energy bill that calls for the production of 100,000 hydrogen fuel cell cars by the end of the decade.

While environmentalists called the goal "modest," given the money dedicated to the effort, free-market advocates said the Senate's 67-32 approval of the amendment was unfortunate because the government has traditionally done a poor job when it comes to spending money on new technologies.

"It's annoying that the Senate feels competent to set timetables and goals for a technology that has yet to be invented in a commercially attractive manner," said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Automobile manufacturers are developing hydrogen fuel cell cars, and General Motors Corp. plans to release such a vehicle by 2010. Ford Motor Co. plans to introduce some models to large fleets next year.

The amendment, which calls for the production and deployment of 100,000 hydrogen fuel cell cars by 2010 and 2.5 million by 2020, sets only goals and not mandates.

It also calls for the Department of Energy to create targets to make sure there are an adequate number of fueling stations for the vehicles.

Whether those targets will be met remains unclear, according to observers keeping tabs on the energy bill. Even before the Department of Energy can implement the goals, the Senate must reach an agreement on the bill with the House - a process that's failed for the past two years.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology, which gained broad recognition after President Bush endorsed it in his State of the Union address in January, is rapidly changing and remains very expensive for use in automobiles, General Motors spokesman Mike Morrissey said.

Market factors, as opposed to a government mandate, will determine whether the targets will be met, Morrissey said.

"Our goal is very clear," he said. "We're going to have a compelling fuel cell vehicle ready for the market by the end of this decade. It's going to have all the performance that customers demand, and it's going to be priced so they can afford it."

Environmentalists hailed the amendment's passage. Josh Alban and Ray Minjares, program analysts at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, said Dorgan set a laudable goal for carmakers and creates targets that Bush has not addressed.

Dorgan has compared his fuel cell campaign to the development of the Apollo space program in the 1960s.

While the goals are good starting points, Alban said several factors should be taken into account to make hydrogen fuel cells effective and good for the environment.

"Hydrogen is only worthwhile if we ensure it comes from renewable sources," Alban said. "If we rely on nuclear, coal or natural gas, there's a danger of offsetting any benefits we would get by moving to a fuel cell."

Supporters of hydrogen have said it offers multiple benefits; it is free of pollutants since it only emits water, and it is one of Earth's most abundant elements. Dorgan said it would also reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

But his amendment did not win over free-market advocates like Ben Lieberman, director of clean air policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute. Lieberman questioned the need for an alterative to the conventional automobile.

"Most of the problems associated with them are getting better. They're cleaner today than they were in the past, and they're getting cleaner still," Lieberman said. "I'm not a big believer that we really need to replace the internal combustion engine."

Besides, Lieberman said, hydrogen fuel cell technology is years away from becoming affordable, arguing there are many hurdles it must overcome before meeting the goals stipulated in the energy bill.

While the amendment was more annoying to Taylor than anything, he said at least it only sets goals and not a government mandate.

"There are literally dozens of such stipulations in the federal code," Taylor said, "and probably hundreds at the state level, most of which are utterly ignored."

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.