Energy Budget Slashes Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Research

What one hand giveth, the other taketh away. In the president's 2012 budget proposal released today, the Administration recommends spending $8 billion on "clean energy and technology programs." But hydrogen technology and fuel cells programs were largely left off the clean energy dream team. The Administration recommends cutting the hydrogen technology budget within the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by nearly $70 million, more than 41% below the 2010 level. It also zeros out the fuel cells program within DOE's Office of Fossil Fuels. "Fiscal responsibility demands shared sacrifice—it means cutting programs we would not cut in better fiscal times," wrote DOE Secretary Steven Chu in a message posted Friday on the DOE's Web site.

This is the second time Chu has tried to scale back the hydrogen program.

The budget for the program reached its zenith in the final year of the Bush Administration (fiscal year 2008) at more than $206 million. It dropped to just below $200 million in FY 2009. In the FY 2010 budget, Chu recommended cutting $100 million in support for hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. But Congress largely restored the money, keeping the hydrogen program budget at $174 million. In his newly posted message, Chu says the cuts are needed "in order to focus on technologies deployable at large scale in the near term." So far that's meant electric vehicles and gas-electric hybrids. The recent stimulus package offered billions of dollars in funding to support battery development for advanced plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Unsurprisingly, hydrogen and fuel cell proponents are vowing to fight the latest proposed cuts. They start by pointing at the more than $1.5 billion spent on the technology over the past 8 years. "After investing billions of American dollars and years of effort, we simply cannot walk away from our commitment to these technologies," says Ruth Cox, president and executive director of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FC&HEA) in Washington, D.C. The cuts are particularly troublesome, adds FC&HEA Policy Director James Warner, because fuel cells and hydrogen energy are two sets of clean energy technologies where the U.S. companies still maintain a lead. He says, "Are we willing to just give this up?" Besides, Warner adds, progress on the technology continues to be crisp, with the cost of fuel cells down 10-fold over the past decade, and their efficiency up between twofold and threefold.

Still fighting to keep the money for hydrogen and fuel cells in the budget is likely to be harder than in years past. House of Representatives Republicans have proposed far deeper cuts to many agencies than the Obama Administration. One of the field's main congressional champions, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) retired last year.