An expected 1,000 or so people from around the globe — researchers, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and techno-geeks — will descend on Columbia this week for the National Hydrogen Association Expo & Conference.
And it will be a coming out party of sorts for South Carolina.
The state has been a hydrogen research center since the Savannah River Site harnessed tritium for H-bombs in the 1950s. But the conference — which features a large international contingent and some of the world’s biggest companies — will cement the state on the world hydrogen map.
“This is a big deal,” said S.C. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, who will give a keynote address at a special State House event to welcome the conferees.
“It’s about science, sure,” he said. “But it also lets companies see how nice South Carolina is and how great a place this would be to start a business.”
Hydrogen is seen as a cornerstone in the state’s effort to retool its economy from manufacturing to high-tech and as a clean and renewable alternative fuel to break the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
The state’s research universities, Harrell and others believe, will lead the state’s economic-development efforts by spinning off high-tech inventions and innovations for entrepreneurs to build companies around.
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 fuel-cell industry for Columbia and the Midlands.
And that’s just money in the Midlands. Millions of dollars also have been spent in Aiken, Clemson and Orangeburg to establish those regions as centers for other facets of the hydrogen economy, such as production and storage of the gas and its use in homes, cars and public transportation.
For the $40.7 million investment in the Midlands, 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.
USC President Harris Pastides said the exposure the region and the state will receive from the conference should make that investment pay even more.
“It’s the kind of visibility we couldn’t buy,” he said. “Having these many hundreds (of hydrogen professionals) here is going to open their eyes. I guarantee some of them didn’t know where Columbia was. What they are going to take away is: ‘Great place.’”
In the past six years, the conference was held in Washington, D.C. (twice), Los Angeles, San Antonio and Sacramento and Long Beach, Calif.
Association spokesman Patrick Serfass said Columbia was a natural for this year’s event.
“We’ve been to bigger cities,” he said. “But the amount of growth (in hydrogen research and business) in South Carolina is commendable and inspirational. You’ve got everyone from the mayor to the congressional delegation supporting this technology and using it.”
Among the exhibitors at this year’s conference, which kicks off Monday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, are automakers Honda and Daimler, energy giant Shell, the state of California, the U.S. Department of Energy and firms from Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.
There also will be more than 100 presenters from as far away as Turkey and India and attendees from 30 countries.
“And they are all looking to network in the largest hydrogen conference in the country,” Serfass said.
One downside is that the wretched economy has caused many hydrogen and fuel-cell companies — usually fledgling firms struggling to leverage the new technology — to cut back on travel expenses.
About 1,000 people are expected at this year’s event — down about 30 percent from the 1,500 or so who usually show.
THE BEST BRAINS IN THE WORLD
One local dignitary will be notable in his absence: Gov. Mark Sanford.
Sanford, although he has supported the hydrogen effort with small, targeted investments, has opposed huge influxes of public money into hydrogen research and market creation.
In the words of his spokesman Joel Sawyer: “The last thing we want is a bunch of politicians picking the industry of tomorrow.”
There is also a chorus of critics who assert that hydrogen, with its abundant production and storage problems and the perception it is unsafe, takes a back seat to other alternative fuels in the race to break the country’s dependence on oil.
Neil McLean, CEO of Engenuity, the local group that heads the region’s hydrogen and fuel-cell efforts, waves aside those criticisms.
He notes the area 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 is home to some of the world’s leading fuel-cell scientists, he said.
“It’s like we’re in Silicon Valley at the beginning of the computer age,” McLean said. “We have the best brains in the world here. Everything can build from that.”
Engenuity has erected billboards around the city touting those researchers and welcoming attendees to the conference.
COLUMBIA IN THE FOREFRONT
In addition to USC and the state, the conference is critical for the city of Columbia in particular.
It’s a chance for the city to show off.
This is the first major, international conference to be held since the city reinvented and redeveloped its downtown and riverfront — spending tens of millions of dollars on streetscaping, parks, a convention center and an arena — specifically to attract researchers and entrepreneurs.
“We want to put our best foot forward and show the dramatic changes that have occurred in the past few years,” Mayor Bob Coble said. “We want (people attending the conference) to know this is a great place to live, as well as a great place to invest.
“We want anyone who is involved in the hydrogen economy to have Columbia in the forefront of their minds,” he said.
Contrary to some thinking, this will not be the largest convention at the convention center.
It doesn’t even come close to the 9,000-person Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ convention in 2007 that dominated most of downtown’s hotel rooms and filled both the convention center and the adjacent Colonial Life Arena. That convention will return in July — this time 10,000 people strong.
That said, the people who run the convention center said they understand the importance of the event to the state as a whole.
“We’ve been working for a year and a half to ensure everything is in place for the National Hydrogen Conference,” said Ric Luber, president and CEO of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism. “The convention center is ready ... and we’ll have staff and volunteers ready to service guests and exhibitors.”
But the most important job may come after the convention closes, USC’s Pastides said.
“I plan on listening a lot,” he said. “These people are in it for the money, and they don’t have time to be fooling around with us if we can’t make them more profitable. I want to know what they need.
“The opportunity we have will be short-lived if we don’t push it forward,” he said.
Reach Wilkinson at (803)771-8495.