Fuel Cell Cars Get Their Day in DC
WASHINGTON, D.C. - On a drizzly day in Washington last week, tourists lining up for a visit to the Capitol could catch a glimpse of something else they probably don't see every day: a bunch of cars powered by fuel cells. Parked just outside the U.S. Botanic Garden, the three vehicles had company reps hovering nearby to pop the hood, answer questions and even take gawkers out for a spin.
The cars -- from General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Nissan Motor -- were part of a technology showcase sponsored by the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, an industry group. Fuel cells, in case you're wondering, are devices that use a chemical reaction, not combustion, to generate power. It's basically the reverse of your grade-school electrolysis experiment--instead of separating hydrogen and oxygen with electricity, hydrogen and oxygen are combined in the fuel cell to produce electricity and water.
Up the Hill in the Cannon House office building, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council had also pulled together a mini trade convention for the benefit primarily of members of Congress and staff. In a large conference room, dozens more company reps--from the likes of General Electric, Delphi and Ballard Power Systems -- showed off their employers' fuel cell wares.
The timing of the event, now in its fifth year, was good. Activity on energy policy has heated up in Washington, D.C. lately, and there's no shortage of provisions dealing with hydrogen and fuel cells. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved an energy bill the week of May 23, with the full Senate poised to take up the legislation in June. (The House passed its version in late April). "They've got to get me a bill," President Bush said at a press event at a hydrogen fueling station in Washington, D.C. last week.
The energy bill foundered in Congress' last session, but some supporters seem confident this time around. At an energy industry conference sponsored by accounting firm Deloitte two weeks ago, Joseph T. Kelliher, a onetime Hill staffer and present commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told the crowd he was more hopeful than at any time in the last four years. "We will pass a bill this year," Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) predicted.
In a phone interview last week, Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, wouldn't comment on the overall merits of the energy package or its prospects. "It's a complicated piece of legislation," he said. A 30-year Washington veteran, Rose cut his legislative teeth working on the Clean Air Act.
Still, he likes what he sees when it comes to hydrogen and fuel cells. In the House version of the bill, for example, a tax provision would subsidize 15% of the price of fuel cell technology bought by private entities. "It's a significant risk-sharing provision for early adopters of the technology and very important for the industry," said Rose. Some other notables among the 120 outfits belonging to his organization: Intel, Chevron and United Technologies.
As it stands now, the Senate bill authorizes $860 million from fiscal 2006 through 2010 for the promotion of fuel cell technologies. While the funding levels are less than the House counterpart, Rose points out that the Senate legislation sets forth both a purchasing provision and more targets in terms of commercial viability, such as 2.5 million hydrogen-fueled vehicles on the roads by 2020. He also notes that such targets, though frowned on by the Bush Administration, have been part of the approach taken by the Japanese.
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