Getting the Industry Energized for a New Year

Getting the Industry Energized for a New Year

An event in early October excited environmentalists and proponents of new vehicle technology (myself included), when Shell Hydrogen opened the country’s first combined hydrogen/gasoline station in North America.

Located in northeast Washington, D.C., the hydrogen dispenser at the Shell retail gasoline station will service a fleet of six fuel cell vehicles from General Motors Corp., part of a cooperation between Shell and GM to demonstrate hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and refueling infrastructure technology. Shell and GM executives said this is an important first step in the contribution to make fuel cell vehicles an everyday reality. Shell will offer both compressed and liquid hydrogen at the station.

Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of research and development and planning, called the opening of the station a historic moment for the automobile, and explained the only way the hydrogen economy will come about is if local communities, government, energy companies and automotive companies work together. “The only way the Hydrogen Economy will be realized is having not only fuel cell vehicles, but also convenient places to refuel and local communities that will support this transition to a new energy source,” he said. “We will look back on this day and realize that it was a watershed moment – the moment when we started down a new path to a future where we have readily available hydrogen, made from renewable feedstocks, to power our vehicles and energize our economy.”

These are electrifying times for the automotive industry, but they could be better times, too, if the research and funding became more available. In the last couple of years, Congress has approved only $300 million of the $1.7 billion for research sought by President Bush over 15 years in the development of hydrogen fuel cell cars.

This research is part of the Bush administration’s FreedomCAR program, which was launched by the Energy Department in January 2002. The idea was to have the government and the private sector work together in the funding and research of advanced, efficient fuel cell technology.

But since then, the FreedomCAR program has been criticized as not providing short-term solutions. So the administration began to focus the program more toward hybrid vehicles. (To view the FreedomCAR website, visit www.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/.)

Although just prior to Thanksgiving Congress appropriated $158 million for the FreedomCAR initiative, I would feel better seeing more funding go toward this important program so we can decrease our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

In a related matter, it will be interesting to see how much impact the nation’s next energy secretary, who will replace Spencer Abraham, will have on the FreedomCAR program, as well as the energy department.

Abraham, who recently resigned from the post, had actually served the longest tenure of any energy secretary. (This may seem a bit ironic since Abraham, as a one-term Republican senator from Michigan prior to becoming energy secretary, actually called for the dismantling of the Energy Department.) It seemed, at times, Abraham was frustrated in his position these past four years. Abraham presided over a period when U.S. crude oil prices soared to a record high of nearly $56 a barrel, gas prices reached beyond $2 a gallon for consumers, an energy policy was pretty much non-existent, a major blackout hit the Northeast and Great Lakes region in August 2003, and little, if any, reduction on dependence on foreign oil was seen.

But don’t expect the former cabinet member to disappear off the radar. A former attorney, Abraham said he plans to return to the private sector. Some industry sources speculate he may take a position as a lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Or he may even become more involved as a member of the FreedomCAR program that he helped launch.

At any rate, the next year should prove to be interesting in the automotive industry and its relationship with the energy sector.

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