Bush Touts Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Bush uses National Building Museum speech as opportunity to push hydrogen and fuel cell initiative.

Published: 07-Feb-2003

T size=2>By JENNIFER LOVEN
Associated Press Writer

February 6, 2003, 6:18 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Thursday urged Congress to "think beyond the normal" and approve his plan to spur development of clean-burning hydrogen fuel cells to power cars that he said would reduce pollution and America's foreign oil dependence.

In a National Building Museum speech, Bush promoted his request for $1.2 billion in federal money over five years into hydrogen fuel cell research. The money is aimed at finding ways to get the fuel to where it can be used. Without fueling stations, nobody will want to buy the cars even when they land in showrooms a decade or more from now.

"What we do today can make a tremendous difference for the future of America," Bush said.

The program, which must work its way through an arduous congressional appropriations process, was well received in Connecticut, where fuel cell technology is being developed at companies including UTC Fuel Cells in South Windsor and Praxair Inc. in Danbury.

UTC officials attended Thursday's speech.

Jan van Dokkum, president of UTC Power, which includes the company's fuel cell business, said he was "tremendously encouraged that we're going to move forward here. This technology has been in the works for a long time, and it's being recognized now for what it is. It's clean energy."

Beforehand, the President spent about 20 minutes watching demonstrations of cars, a scooter and portable electronics such as cell phones and lap tops, all powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

On a corner outside the building where he spoke, a knot of protesters complained about Bush's energy policies, which include drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Bush also pushed in his speech.

"Caribou Not Oil," said one sign.

First announced in his State of the Union address, Bush promised "a new national commitment" to take fuel-cell powered cars "from laboratory to showrooms" within the next 20 years.

Of the money he proposed, just $720 million would represent additional spending beyond what is already planned for fuel cell research. In all, Bush wants to spend $1.7 billion over the next 5 years on 2 projects.

Critics have noted that it will be a generation before hydrogen-powered cars are widely available and affordable and have questioned Bush's short-term energy policies as well.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a candidate for his party's 2004 presidential nomination, said Bush's fuel cell plan's goals are laudable but fall short of a comprehensive policy needed to wean America off foreign oil.

Next-generation cars "offer real promise down the road _ but we can only strengthen our energy independence if we complete the picture with a creative, concrete and comprehensive strategy that starts us moving in the right direction today," said Lieberman, who outlined eight energy policy goals.

"Lacking that, proposals like the president's are nothing more than an exhaust pipe dream," he said.

The UTC executive, van Dokkum, countered that investing in hydrogen fuel cells doesn't preclude work on shorter-term energy and environmental strategies.

"If you don't start today, you're not going to be there 15 years from now" with fuel cells, he said. "I wish it was sooner too. But the reality is there's still a lot of work that has to be done."

A year ago, the administration announced a 10-year program aimed at helping automakers develop fuel cell technology to replace the internal combustion engine.

The new program _ called "Freedom Fuel" by the White House _ would focus on spurring research to develop the technologies and infrastructure needed to produce, store and distribute hydrogen for use in future fuel-cell vehicles or stationary electric generating facilities.

Last year, about $31 million was spent on such programs. Congress already is planning to increase that to $45 million this fiscal year. In his request to lawmakers for spending during the 2004 budget year, Bush proposed $273 million for the Freedom Fuel program.

A White House fact sheet acknowledged hydrogen is still four times as expensive as gasoline and fuel cells are 10 times more expensive to build than a conventional automobile engine. But it predicted that by 2040, the hydrogen fuel cell initiatives could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500 million metric tons of carbon equivalent each year and reduce consumption of oil by 11 million barrels a day.

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