Green-car fans split on fuel cell, plug-in

Battery-powered autos losing battle for funds

December 15, 2007|By Ken Bensinger | Ken Bensinger,Los Angeles Times

Advocates of alternative-fuel vehicles would seem a unified bunch of tree-huggers, bound by their determination to wean the world's automobiles off fossil fuels. But there's a red-hot fight brewing in the green-car world.

Proponents of the two most-hyped technologies - hydrogen fuel cells and plug-in electric hybrids - are squared off in an increasingly bitter fight. They are vying for publicity, manufacturer acceptance, favorable regulation and, especially, financing for research and investment in infrastructure and marketing.

The battle has been simmering for several years, but with the technologies coming tantalizingly close to commercial reality, the stakes are higher than ever.

Whoever gets the upper hand now could determine the cars of the future.

The camps are competing for potentially more than $2 billion in federal funds over the next five years and are lobbying for federal and state regulations that could have a serious effect on whether fuel cells or plug-ins wind up on dealer lots.

"It's just unfortunate that there has to be so much infighting," says Patricia Monahan, deputy director for the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which calls itself "agnostic" on which technology holds more promise. "Sometimes it seems almost personal."

Fundamentally, the disagreement is over which technology is more viable. Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen to create electricity, which powers the car. The only emission is water.

Critics (some call them "fool cells"), contend that the process of producing hydrogen requires three to four times more energy than the hydrogen later generates in the fuel cell. They also say that the cars are too expensive, and that hydrogen molecules can't be contained easily without energy-consuming compressors or maintaining them in liquid form at extremely low temperatures.

Plug-in hybrids also are powered by electricity, but draw their juice from batteries that are charged by plugging the car into the electrical grid. In addition, they typically carry a small gasoline- or diesel-powered generator that can be used to charge the batteries and extend the range of the vehicle.

Plug-in critics sniff that battery technology isn't advanced enough for long-range driving, and they doubt the current electric infrastructure is robust enough to charge a nation's entire fleet at once. Plus, they note, much of the electricity that comes to our wall outlets is generated by burning fossil fuels.

The lack of common ground between the rival camps was on display earlier this month in Anaheim, Calif., at EVS-23, the nation's largest alternative vehicle convention.

Standing in front of his booth, Lorne Gettel, president and chief executive of Advanced Lithium Power, which makes batteries for $80,000 Fisker plug-in luxury cars that are expected to be on the market by the end of next year, dismissed fuel cells.

"The infrastructure isn't there, the hydrogen is too expensive, and it's extremely difficult to store," he said. "The quickest way to reduce emissions is through plug-in hybrids."

Directly across the aisle, Paul Cass of fuel cell maker Ballard Power Systems saw things differently. "If you start plugging in hundreds of thousands of cars all at once, you'll be finding out what the limits of the electrical grid are real quick," he said. "Fuel cells are the only zero-emissions option."

Carmakers largely have ridden the fence, investing considerable resources in each technology.

General Motors Corp., for example, says it will begin selling its Chevy Volt plug-in by 2010, but meanwhile has begun lending 100 Chevy Equinox fuel cell SUVs to select drivers.

Ford Motor Co. handed over the keys to 20 plug-ins to utility supplier Southern California Edison less than a month after buying, along with Daimler AG, Ballard's automotive fuel cell business in a deal worth $228 million.

Toyota executives say the company's long-term bet is on hydrogen, even as it toys with converting its Prius hybrid into a plug-in.

In Washington, however, the story has been less equivocal. Funding in the 1990s was limited but fairly balanced between technologies. That changed in this decade, particularly after President Bush's State of the Union address in 2003, when he called for a "national commitment" to fuel cells, pledging $1.2 billion for the first five years of a 10-year development program.

While batteries and plug-in technology do get some federal support, it's a fraction of that given to fuel cells. For 2007, the Department of Energy budgeted $50.8 million to research and develop hybrid and electric propulsion, compared with $195.8 million for hydrogen technology.

Well-organized trade groups such as the U.S. Fuel Cell Council and the National Hydrogen Association are lobbying hard to increase hydrogen-related funding in coming budgets, yet plug-in advocates have a surprisingly muted voice in the halls of Congress.

"In a word, I would say there is no trade or lobby group [for plug-in hybrids and battery-only vehicles]," said Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug In America, an activist group that doesn't get the kind of corporate support that hydrogen counterparts do.

Ken Bensinger writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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