Congress voted Thursday to include $174 million in next year's budget for hydrogen transportation research.
The Energy and Water Appropriations Bill now goes to President Barack Obama's desk. He is expected to sign it, said Kyle Michel, the Washington lobbyist for Columbia and the state of South Carolina.
"The White House has not expressed any reservations with the bill," he said.
That is quite a turnaround.
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The program, administered by the Energy Department, was funded at $169 million last year. But the Obama administration through Energy Secretary Stephen Chu in May proposed cutting the funding by more than half to $68 million.
He told lawmakers that taxpayer money was better spent on research for electric cars, better batteries for plug-in cars and biofuels, which he deemed quicker fixes than hydrogen for the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
But intense lobbying from the delegations of South Carolina and other hydrogen states, including California, persuaded the House and Senate to restore the funding and increase it by $5 million over last year.
"Congress' restoration of hydrogen funding validates our belief that hydrogen has a bright future as an alternative energy source for our country," said Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, who along with S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell have been the chief advocates for hydrogen and fuel cells in the state.
Coble credited U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.. the House Majority Whip and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for helping to restore the funding.
The proposed funding cut would have not affected research at the University of South Carolina or Clemson, which study fuel cells and automobile platforms, respectively. But grants might have dried up at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, which studies hydrogen production and storage.
It's unclear which grants and how much would have been affected, said Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, executive director the S.C. Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance.
"They still are not sure about the money," she said. "Some grants might get moved around."
A greater impact would have been on public opinion. If Congress had cut funding for hydrogen vehicle research, it would have sent a signal that South Carolina had backed the wrong technology.
So Baxter called the passage "fantastic news."
She noted that several auto makers, chief among them Toyota, Honda, General Motors and Daimler, have announced that hydrogen fueled cars will be hitting showrooms around the world in the 2015 and cost only about $3,600 more than a mid-sized sedans.
"So the timing is perfect" for the funding, she said.
Last spring, the National Hydrogen Association held its annual conference in Columbia.
Patrick Serfass, the association's spokesman, said the funding was part of a package of alternative energy funding intended to stem the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
"We continue to be thrilled that Congress has been showing their support for a portfolio of clean energy technology that includes hydrogen and fuel cells," he said from his Washington office. "Some people are in search of a silver bullet solution, but we think that embracing a variety of technologies is the smart way to proceed."
But critics of government spending for hydrogen research claim that the technology is the longest shot and has yet to find a market in South Carolina.
"Obviously the lobbyists won this round," said Ashley Landess of the libertarian think tank S.C. Policy Council. "There is no other explanation on why they would fund it when there is no private sector business interest and no demand for it - at least in South Carolina. The only interest here is by the government."