Congress recently included $174 million in next year's budget for hydrogen transportation research. This came after the Obama administration had recommended drastic cuts in favor of alternative energy technologies that might come on the market faster, like plug-in electric cars.
Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, executive director of the S.C. Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance, talked about the funding of hydrogen transportation research with The State:
What does the passage by Congress of the hydrogen funding portion of the Energy and Water Bill mean for South Carolina?
"It means that the federal government is still a strong partner with industry in pursuing a family of technologies that are truly clean, safe and secure energy for the United States. The bill funds projects in other alternative energy areas too because we, as a country, have to take a broader and more long-term vision for solving our energy challenges and recognize that there is no one 'silver bullet.'"
How does hydrogen fit in with other types of alternative energy, such as solar and biomass?
"Lots of other near-term technologies are great because they reduce pollution and petroleum dependence, but they don't fully eliminate either. Renewables, such as wind and biomass, coupled with hydrogen fuel cells, are a sustainable combination.
"Excess renewable capacity can be used to produce hydrogen that can be stored until times when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining. Stored hydrogen can be used in a fuel cell to provide power and 'firm' up the renewable energy."
When, if ever, will I be able to buy a hydrogen car for a reasonable price and drive it in South Carolina?
"Every major, private sector auto manufacturer has recently reaffirmed their long-term commitment to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the end game for vehicle technology. Car companies are currently leasing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for reasonable prices ($600/month including fuel) in limited worldwide locations.
"Sales are scheduled to start in 2015, and the companies say that the cars will only cost $3,600 more than what we pay now. It's entirely possible that we will be able to buy reasonably priced hydrogen vehicles and drive them in S.C. within the next 10 years."
Beyond automobiles, what other applications of fuel cells and hydrogen are most likely to be successful and create private sector jobs in South Carolina?
"Cars are the toughest industry sector to tackle, but there are plenty of other areas in our lives where we need power. Off-road transportation, portable electronics, homes and buildings are a few I can name quickly.
"Currently, hydrogen fuel cell forklifts and backup power for communications (cell) towers are the best value propositions in the market. The next application in the private sector will most likely be on-the-go cell phone chargers and other portable products."
How do you answer critics who say that a hydrogen-based economy is not feasible in South Carolina and that government shouldn't be spending money trying to create it?
"Economists can show that, overall, as our standard of living increases so do our energy needs. Energy is the dominant issue facing our generation, and who is going to control our energy supplies is a valid question. There are no two ways about it, we must have an industry-government partnership to find the right balance of consumer demand, energy security and sustainability."