Battery electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt count the federal government as a good friend these days. The government has spent two and a half billion dollars in just a few years to boost battery technology.
But there’s another way to propel an electric car– with hydrogen. And proponents are making a last-ditch effort to convince the Obama administration that fuel cell cars are ready for prime time.
Take Honda’s fuel cell electric car, the FCX Clarity. It can go about 240 miles on a tank of hydrogen fuel. About 60 miles to the gallon if you want to compare it to gasoline. The only emission from the car is water so pure you could drink it
(Here's a video of me taking the FCX Clarity for a test drive)
There are emissions from the process used to create hydrogen, from natural gas. But the emissions are about 60% less than comparable emissions from cars using internal combustion engines.
Honda has been building a limited number of hydrogen fuel cell cars since 2005. That’s why the company was so surprised when in 2009, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu claimed it would take four technological "miracles" to make fuel cell cars viable in the marketplace. Honda's Steve Ellis says,
"Simply put, he’s wrong on those points. He has bad advice. Automakers are not foolish. We’re not going to invest in technology that we see as a dead end."
We meet Ellis at one of southeast Michigan’s few hydrogen fueling stations, after four days of driving and thankfully not wrecking one of Honda’s fuel cell cars.
The car costs $600 a month to lease, including fuel costs and maintenance. But if you add in all the research and development costs, each one of these babies is probably worth tens of millions of dollars.
But Ellis says the costs are coming down, from the hydrogen fuel, which is made from natural gas, to the cost of the fuel cells. And producing the cars in volume will really bring the costs down.
Ellis lifts the hood. Much of what is there looks normal. Except for the lack of an internal combustion engine.
"Ten years ago," he says, "if we were looking under this hood, it would be duct tape and bailing wires. So it was all an engineering exercise. This car -- we’re handing the keys to customers, saying here’s your car, see you in six months, nothing to see here folks."
But the keys are being given only to a few people in southern California, where state subsidies helped build a cluster of hydrogen fueling stations. And even if Secretary Chu changes his mind about the miracles –the price tag remains a problem.
Oliver Hazimeh is with PRTM consultants. He says battery electric cars like the Volt and the Leaf are getting cheaper, faster. That’s why batteries are getting the nod from the government.
"By 2015, you will probably get a Nissan Leaf-type vehicle on the battery side for probably $25,000," says Hazimeh. "That same vehicle in the fuel cell configuration will probably be still $45,000 to $50,000."
But fuel cell proponents say that’s not a fair competition. The government spent more on battery electric technology in just the past two years than it did on fuel cells over the past decade.
James Warner is with the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association. He says putting all the country's eggs on one technological basket means less diversity as the country seeks to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.
And he says reducing U.S. funding sends the wrong message to car companies like Honda, GM, Toyota, Daimler and Hyundai that are developing fuel cell cars.
"By all accounts they are ready to commercialize these vehicles in 2015," says Warner. "It depends where. What country."
And Warner has a bigger worry than less federal funding. Under a continuing budget resolution, Secretary Chu has no mandate to spend anything at all on fuel cell technology.
"The Secretary if he so chose could end these programs today."
But a statement from Secretary Chu suggests he’s likely to stick with President Obama’s proposed budget, which cuts research and development by about half -- but eliminates funding for the commercialization of fuel cell cars.
That means it could take even longer for people who don’t live in southern California to get a hydrogen fuel cell car to drive.