Obama Administration Wants to Speed Up Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles

A hybrid-electric delivery truck leaving a FedEx distribution center in Charlotte, N.C.

The “hydrogen economy” just got a nice push from the Obama administration, which is now partnering with the private sector to facilitate a fresh wave of fuel cells that can be used to power the transportation sector.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced at year end that it would spread a US $7.2 million investment across four states: Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, all to support projects that fuel vehicles and support power systems. The administration says that it is part of its “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

The winners:

  • The Center for Transportation and the Environment, which will get $3 million. Based in Atlanta, it is developing a fuel cell hybrid electric walk-in delivery van that has a 240 km range before it would need refueling. The project will also retrofit 15 UPS delivery vans with fuel cell hybrid power trains.
  • FedEx Express, which will receive $3 million. Headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., it is building a hydrogen fuel cell delivery truck with a range of up to 240 km on a full tank.
  • Air Products and Chemicals, which will get $900 000. The hydrogen supplier is located in Allentown, Penn. and is constructing a cost-effective tube trailer for hydrogen delivery and storage that can withstand high pressures.
  • Sprint, which will receive $250 000 to use hydrogen fuel cells as backup power for its rooftop cellular sites. In a press release the company says that it will focus on lightweight fuel cell system that can be easily installed without heavy cranes and that can be refueled from the ground, eliminating the need for transporting fuel to the rooftops.

At present, fuel cells are being adopted for materials handling equipment such as forklifts as well as in powering telecommunications infrastructure. As for the transportation sector, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are all creating small numbers of fuel cell-powered cars that they say will be available by 2015 in Southern California. For its part, Toyota has said that it expects to produce “tens of thousands per year in the 2020s.” Cost for fuel cell vehicles have dropped by 50 percent since 2006 and 30 percent since 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Meanwhile, fuel cell durability has more doubled since 2005.

The advantages of hydrogen are that it is abundant, renewable and non-polluting. Water vapor is the only byproduct of a fuel cell and hydrogen-fueled vehicles have more twice the range of today’s electric vehicles. But it is difficult to store hydrogen, and it is about 30 percent more expensive to carry the hydrogen via pipelines than to carry natural gas.

The know-how exists but the cost of creating a new hydrogen-powered auto sector is prohibitive. By partnering with the private sector, the Obama administration thinks that it can create some success stories and speed up the process.

Photo: Chuck Burton/AP Photo

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