S.C. poised for energy grants

Officials look to tap government money for hydrogen, fuel cell projects

jwilkinson@thestate.com February 26, 2009 

State and local officials hope to tap into $15 billion a year in government investments for renewable energy under a plan unveiled Tuesday by President Barack Obama in his address to a joint session of Congress.

Although Obama never mentioned hydrogen or fuel cells in his speech — they are a main push in the Midlands and the state — South Carolina, Columbia and USC officials say they are poised to apply quickly for any grants that come available.

“No city or university in the nation is better positioned than Columbia and USC,” Mayor Bob Coble said.

“Obviously we are looking at a number of other areas (in addition to hydrogen),” the mayor said. “But hydrogen is one of the forms of alternative energy. No one can say with certainty now which ones will be most promising. But in 10 or 20 years, hydrogen most likely will play a role.”

Both Columbia and USC have established “war rooms” to study the availability of grants under the stimulus plan and quickly find projects to match them.

“The university administration and university researchers are quite encouraged by President Obama’s long-term commitment to development of alternative fuels, as well as his statement that (the) answers to our economic crisis exist in university laboratories,” USC spokeswoman Margaret Lamb said.

“University researchers have stepped up their funding proposals in key areas so they will be well positioned to take advantage of the increased research funds and pursue important scientific research that will benefit our state and our country.”

Among the city and USC proposals are:

• Research grants for future fuels and other technology

• Money to finish USC’s Innovista research campus buildings

• Grants to make public buildings more energy efficient

• Funding for streetscaping projects.

Obama listed energy as a priority in Tuesday’s speech, behind education and health care.

“We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century,” he said.

The president listed wind, solar, biofuels and “clean” coal as targets for funding.

But local officials believe that hydrogen and fuel cells can also get a piece of the stimulus pie.

“We will pursue every avenue available to us through the stimulus package,” said Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, executive director of the S.C. Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance, which coordinates the efforts of hydrogen research and development outlets statewide.

“We are already looking at those proposals and putting together strategic partnerships,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to advance the hydrogen and fuel cell future of our state.”

Baxter-Clemmons warned, however, that the city, university and state must be prepared to meet the required local matches the federal grants would carry.

That could be a hurdle at a time when the state is cutting budgets, the university is struggling with those cuts and the city’s finances are in disarray.

“In these hard economic times we will have to work hard to find that match if we want to compete with other states for federal dollars,” she said.

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