It is welcome news that the Obama administration has flip-flopped on fuel cells as a power source for electric vehicles.
There is no evidence that fuel cells will save the world. But acknowledging that fuel cells could have potential is a significant change for an administration that from the beginning has acted as if battery-powered EVs are the be-all and end-all solution for reducing petroleum consumption.
There are several reasons the Obama administration initially questioned the viability of fuel cells:
- The administration's energy experts may have sided with critics who worried about the durability of fuel cells and considered them an unlikely technology, largely hyped as a ploy to forestall stiffer fuel economy standards.
- Fuel cells were favored by the George W. Bush administration, which from 2004 to 2008 spent $1.7 billion on fuel cell development, mostly through the FreedomCAR coalition that included the Detroit 3 and several oil companies.
- The Obama administration may have been influenced by allies in the environmental lobby, which seems to favor battery-powered EVs above all other alternatives.
No matter. At least now there is a signal from Washington that fuel cells may be OK.
The Department of Energy, which has continued to steer minimal research funding to fuel cells under President Obama, doesn't plan to throw money at fuel cells the way it did under the Bush administration. But DOE support through the H2USA project may clear the way for private investment, especially for the hydrogen fueling stations needed to support a fledgling fuel cell industry. The first wave of fuel cell vehicles is expected to hit dealerships about 2015.
It is wrong for government to pick winners and losers from among competing technologies, as the Obama administration has done with its support for battery-powered EVs and the Bush administration did with fuel cells.
In a market economy, the consumer must be the judge. The Obama administration's new policy on fuel cells is a baby step in the right direction.