U.S. May Lose Technology Race in Fuel Cells

Two warnings in the last month have come from the Worldwatch Institute that the U.S. may be left behind in the race to apply renewable technologies to three of the world’s most pressing energy-related problems.

WASHINGTON, DC, US, 2001-09-26 [SolarAccess.com] “In the long run, hydrogen will be derived from renewable energy through electrolysis, using electricity from the sun, wind, and other sources to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, thereby eliminating the use of fossil fuels altogether,” says Robert Ayres, author of ‘How Economists Have Misjudged Global Warming.’ “In rejecting the Kyoto treaty, the Bush administration is using outdated economic assumptions that will stifle technological innovation and actually reduce our economic well-being in the long run.” According to Ayres, the history of technological development shows both of these assumptions to be false. He claims that, contrary to neoclassical belief, government interventions have been major factors in many important technological developments since the industrial revolution. This innovation typically comes as a response to scarcity, war or the emergence of new needs created by other technologies. In a study for Worldwatch Institute, the independent environmental research organization Seth Dunn called for government to take the lead in moving the economy toward hydrogen, saying “Hydrogen receives a fraction of the research funding that is allocated to coal, oil, nuclear and other mature commercial energy sources.” “Is the United States, with former oilmen leading the government and promoting a ‘cheap oil forever’ culture, destined to watch Europe and Japan become leading hydrogen producers and exporters, creating new jobs and revenue, with one of them, perhaps, succeeding America as the next great power?”, the study asks. But Bob Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, says he is satisfied with the Bush administration’s commitment to new energy technologies. The president intervened to block a move to cut funding for hydrogen research, but Rose says any move away from oil will occur slowly. “It’s difficult for me to believe that any administration, Republican, Democratic or whatever, will have the vision as well as the political support to move aggressively on any other fuel (than oil),” he explains. “Let’s be realistic.” “Market forces alone will not move us along the best, fastest route to a hydrogen economy,” continues the Worldwatch Institute. “Just as the government catalyzed the early development of the Internet, there is a critical role for governments to play in speeding the creation of a clean hydrogen economy.” DaimlerChrysler has committed $1 billion over ten years to the development of fuel cells, and is working with Ford and Ballard Power Systems to put transit buses on the road in Europe next year. General Motors wants to be the first to sell one million fuel cell vehicles, beginning mass production by 2010, and has announced major investments in two companies specializing in hydrogen storage and delivery. Toyota recently announced that it would start selling its fuel cell car in Japan in 2003. “Just as the aggressive tapping of oil enabled the United States to eclipse Great Britain and become the economic and political power of the 20th century, nations that move first to harness hydrogen could potentially erode U.S. competitiveness,” warns Dunn. The U.S. federal budget for DOE’s hydrogen program is one fifth the funding proposed for clean coal technologies, and one tenth that for nuclear energy.
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