Hydrogen Backers Punch Back at Plug-in Car Supporters

By · December 22, 2009

Fisker Karma

The Washington Post used a report from the National Research Council to criticize government subsidies for plug-in hybrids, such as the Fisker Karma.

After pouring billions of dollars of federal money into fuel cell car research over decades, the US Department of Energy recently cut way back on hydrogen funding—making long-time hydrogen supporters look like a losing team for now. Instead, the DOE shifted billions of dollars to plug-in hybrids and electric cars, although advocates in Congress saved some funding for hydrogen.

Last week, the federal government’s hydrogen wing punched back with a report concluding that plug-in hybrids will not produce significant savings of either greenhouse gas emission or fuel consumption for at least another two decades. Hmm. That sounds a lot like the argument that plug-in and EV advocates have used to cast hydrogen as a very long-term solution to oil addiction.

The report was produced by the congressionally chartered National Research Council, and funded by the DOE. The researchers are associated with the “Committee on Assessment of Resource Needs for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies.” The chairman is Michael Ramage, a retired ExxonMobil executive.

Collateral Damage

In the tit-for-tat feud, Vice President Joe Biden recently got poked in the eye, when a Washington Post editorial criticized the veep for his role as public spokesperson for the plug-in movement, and for bringing an auto plant for Fisker Automotive—an as-yet unproven start-up plug-in car company—to Deleware, with the help of a half-billion dollar DOE loan. The bickering is all about politics, and does almost nothing to further a fact-based public conversation about the real promise of both hydrogen and plug-in hybrid cars. Most analysts and engineers see plug-in hybrids and electric cars as an immediate strategy for greener cars, and hydrogen as a much longer-term—but by no means less real—technology.

The NRC’s main conclusion is that plug-in hybrids will be more expensive than conventional cars—including conventional hybrids—for many years, mostly because batteries will continue to be expensive. Fair enough, but Team Hydrogen hit below the belt by grossly overstating the long-term cost of the batteries. The NRC projects that the battery pack for a plug-in hybrid with an all-electric range of about 40 miles, like the Chevy Volt, will cost about $14,000, resulting a vehicle price of about $18,000 more than an equivalent non-hybrid.

Pike Research, in collaboration with HybridCars.com, issued a white paper last week with some of the same conclusions as the NRC study. For example, we said that plug-in hybrids and electric cars will be more expensive than conventional cars for many years. That’s a no-brainer. Even our battery cost estimates, in the current period of very low volume production, at about $1,000 per kilowatt-hour, is similar. But the NRC folks say those costs will barely drop in the coming decades, while Pike Research indicates that the cost will fall by about $100 every year for the next five years as global production of lithium ion batteries ramps up. That will make plug-in cars much more affordable in a relatively short period of time.

We also said the market for conventional hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, will become bigger and faster than plug-in hybrids, electric cars or hydrogen, and therefore have more impact on displacing petroleum.

Counterpunch Counterproductive

The NRC report is kicking up big flames in legislative circles. Unfortunately, the situation is turning into a pile-on melee, with pro and con government players and advocacy groups from both sides throwing kicks and punches in all directions. That’s a shame, because what we need is a calm reasoned discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of both technologies, so that we can devise a thoughtful near- and long-term plan for reducing the energy and environmental impact of cars and trucks. The NRC report, and the resulting squabbles, will make that less likely.

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