Is Energy Secretary Chu Reconsidering Hydrogen?

By · May 23, 2012

Stephen Chu

Almost exactly three years ago, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu proposed slashing more than $100 million from the Energy Department's hydrogen program. When he proposed the cut, he said that he holds little hope for fuel cell cars in the coming decades. “We asked ourselves, is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?” he said in a press briefing. “The answer, we felt, was no.”

Shortly afterwards, Secretary Steven Chu told The MIT Technology Review that fuel cells were still too far off to be an immediate priority for funding.

“Right now, the way we get hydrogen primarily is from reforming gas. That's not an ideal source of hydrogen...The other problem is, if it's for transportation, we don't have a good storage mechanism yet. What else? The fuel cells aren't there yet, and the distribution infrastructure isn't there yet. In order to get significant deployment, you need four significant technological breakthroughs. If you need four miracles, that's unlikely. Saints only need three miracles.”

The House Appropriations Committee voted to restore $40 million in fuel cell funding that the Department of Energy had stripped from its budget proposal. Nonetheless, Secretary Chu’s position was firm that hydrogen research was out, and most of the government’s resources should be focused on better batteries for electric cars.

If new reports from Slate are true, Secretary Chu is changing his mind. Slate said that a “sluggish start” for electric vehicles contributed to the flip-flop. According to the publication, “John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell USA and the incoming chairman of the Energy Department's technical advisory committee on fuel cell vehicles, said Chu made supportive remarks about the potential for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles while speaking at a recent, closed event.” Slate said that Industry and Department of Energy officials confirm that Chu has softened his early rejection of hydrogen fuel cells., a pro-hydrogen publication, made a post yesterday that the Department of Energy “once held disdain for hydrogen,” but now “considers the alternative energy to be a viable replacement for fossil-fuels in certain applications.”

It’s too early to know how a change in policy toward hydrogen might affect battery-powered cars, but the prospect is troubling for those who see EVs as a practical technology for today—while hydrogen fuel cars as perhaps decades away (if that) from being a realistic option for mainstream motorists.

As recently as January of this year, Secretary Chu estimated that plug-in vehicle battery costs will drop by 70 percent between 2008 and 2015, and will fall another 58 percent between 2015 and 2020. This could be the key to narrowing the price premium for plug-in cars relative to conventional vehicles, and putting millions of Americans behind the wheel of a zero-emissions car.

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