Hydrogen: Hope or hype?

Leaders urge patience, saying seeds being planted now will take 20 years to payoff. But criitics say USC putting eggs in one basket

jwilkinson@thestate.comMarch 2, 2009 

State and local taxpayers have paid $40.7 million in the past five years to establish a USC research base in hydrogen fuel cells and create a cottage industry for Columbia and the Midlands.

For that investment, the region has attracted $23.4 million in outside research grants and applied for $35.8 million more. The investment has also generated about 100 jobs and created partnerships with dozens of private fuel cell companies or industries working with the technology.

It also has attracted a fuel cell manufacturing company — Trulite — built a hydrogen fueling station and has a host of demonstration projects, such as the fuel cell driven scoreboard at USC’s new baseball stadium.

USC also boasts the only National Science Foundation Fuel Cell Center in the nation.

And later this month, the National Hydrogn Associaton will bring more than 1,000 researchers, manufacurers and government officials to Columbia for its annual conference and expo.

Boosters say that’s not bad for being in only the fourth year of a 20-year plan to turn the Columbia area into a national center of hydrogen research, part of a statewide push to make hydrogen pay.

“This is the computer business in 1945,” said Neil McLean, executive director of Engenuity, the organization formed by the city of Columbia, USC and private business to the area’s coordinate hydrogen efforts.

“We’re plowing the field,” he said. “We’re putting seeds in the ground. We’re fertilizing. But the growing season on this is not three months. It’s 20 years. Be patient.”

The $41 million is going for researchers at USC are working on making fuel cells more efficient for uses from cars to forklift batteries to back-up power sources.

But critics, including S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, say that too much money has been spent on a technology that might not be the wave of the future.

Despite the influx of funding for the technology, hydrogen is still a very long-term long shot — a technological crap shoot that could pay off big time or fizzle out.

“Currently, hydrogen is kind of a novelty,” said Dana Levy, industrial research program manager for the New York State Research & Development Authority, which has been involved in hydrogen research, market creation and infrastructure for decades.

“But there are some things in the laboratory that could be huge game changers,” he said. “With an emerging technology there are all kinds of opportunity. And there is room for everybody. The problem is there are more good ideas than funds available.”

And money during a lengthy recession could be tougher to come by.

Levy noted that research money peaked in the past few years, but is “minimal” now because of more emphasis on other technologies.

“We had an extraordinary period for a few years,” he said. “But those funds have dried up.”

‘THE HOLY GRAIL’

While fuel cells can power anything from a laptop to a city’s electrical grid, cars are the target everyone is shooting for.

With a renewable energy source such as a solar or wind power to make hydrogen, a fuel cell-powered automobile uses no petroleum products and creates no pollution.

“Cars are the Holy Grail,” said Theodore Motykahydrogen project manager, who oversees a team of 40 hydrogen scientists at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken County.

But in today’s race to replace oil as the dominant energy source in America, there are technologies that are much more road-ready than hydrogen or fuel cells.

“The thought that all cars will one day be running on hydrogen has died,” said Joseph Romm, a former acting undersecretary of energy for alternative fuels in the Clinton administration. He is the author of the book “The Hype About Hydrogen.”

“The auto makers know that the future is hybrids and plug-in vehicles,” he said

Hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius are available today and are becoming more widespread. Plug-in hybrid cars charged by electricity from your home are the next incarnation. Chevrolet is scheduled to have a model, the Volt, ready by next year. And then there are biofuels.

All those technologies can work off the fueling grids available now — either electricity or the old fashioned gas station. Hydrogen would take new infrastructure — hydrogen production and storage facilities, delivery systems and fueling stations — that could take decades to build and billions of dollars.

And with gasoline spiking to $4 a gallon last year and wars being fought over oil, the powers that be want solutions now.

“The question is what is the thing that can get to the market first,” said Tom Lynch, spokesman for the New York research authority. “We in New York have a portfolio approach.”

OPPORTUNITIES

A plus for hydrogen is that none of those technologies — electricity or biofuels — are renewable and/or totally clean.

Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells convert the gas into electricity, then create water as a byproduct. In other words, you could create hydrogen with wind, sun or water power, run a car with a fuel cell, then drink the water coming out of the tail pipe.

The problem, beyond the infrastructure, is the production and storage of hydrogen — something the Savannah River National Laboratory has been studying since World War II.

“The U.S. Department of Energy has called that the greatest challenge,” project manager Motyka said.

Most of the applications for fuel cells today, he said, aren’t attached to a moving vehicle and aren’t as concerned abut the size of the storage facilities — battery packs, backup power generators.

Automobiles are “a realistic application,” Motyka said, “but it’s the most difficult application.”

Despite other, easier options for powering automobiles, other states in addition to South Carolina are continuing to pursue hydrogen as fuel.

California is building a system of hydrogen fueling stations, dubbed the “Hydrogen Highway,” as one solution to the state’s pollution problems.

The California Air Resources Board has built about 26 stations so far and has scheduled three more at a cost of $7.7 million.

Spokeswoman Gennet Paauwe said the board expends about $6 million a year on hydrogen efforts — mostly infrastructure — and it will be a part of the $110 million allocated for alternative fuels this year.

Another challenge is that it takes more electricity to make hydrogen than a fuel cell produces.

So if you are going to power your house with a fuel cell, or anything else, why not just use the solar, wind or water generated electricity to power your house and skip the hydrogen phase altogether.

“Until we have surplus electricity, why use it to make hydrogen?” New York’s Levy said.

So the trick is to make hydrogen production more efficient, hydrogen storage more compressed, fuel cells better at producing power and continue to plug away at a delivery system and new vehicles.

STATEWIDE EFFORT

The Columbia and USC research effort in fuel cells is part of a larger statewide effort:

• Scientists at the Savannah River National Laboratory and the Center for Hydrogen Research in Aiken are studying production and storage.

• Clemson’s ICAR center is working on vehicles.

• S.C. State University scientists are studying rural applications.

And a couple of the state’s aces in the hole are that S.C. Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is the chairman of the hydrogen caucus in the U.S. Senate, and Upstate Republican Bob Inglis is his counterpart in the U.S. House.

“The leaders of this state are not going for quick fixes,” said Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, executive director of the S.C. Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance, which coordinates hydrogen and fuel cell efforts statewide.

“People who think that this is going to be a cakewalk have the wrong impression,” she said. “They need to realize that.”

But state leaders are divided on hydrogen. Gov. Mark Sanford is lukewarm at best.

“We have supported some targeted investment in hydrogen,” Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said. “But we don’t think it’s wise to put all our eggs in one basket. If you’re going to start funding research, you have to hedge your bets. The last thing we want is a bunch of politicians picking the industry of tomorrow.”

Sawyer said Sanford wants to support the effort, “but in a way consistent with market principles, where the private sector drives where we invest rather than government.”

He said USC’s Innovista research campus — intended to be a center for research on hydrogen and other technologies and a magnet for private companies building spin-off products — “was built on the Field of Dreams concept. Guess what? They haven’t come.”

Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, on the other hand, is one of hydrogen’s champion in the State House.

“I agree with the governor that the private sector should take the lead,” he said. “But in a state that is as poor as South Carolina has been since the 1800s, state government has to help facilitate this. And everything we have done has required a significant private sector participation.”

The money spent in the Midlands so far includes:

• $19 million in hydrogen’s share of the $48 million Horizon 1 research building and parking garage in USC’s Innovista research campus — a building that remains empty because it lacks about $20 million to finish it, in part, because of budget shortfalls.

• $16.3 million in state grants for researchers, such as USC’s endowed chairs program, which funds special researchers and their teams of scientists.

• And $5.4 million in grants and startup money for companies who want to build fuel cells here, as well as a hydrogen fueling station and administrative costs.

“It’s a lot of money,” Baxter-Clemmons said. “But the stakes are high for S.C. right now. We have invested in the good times on things that will serve us well. We are looking to get in on the beginning of something.”

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