May 2009

Fuel Cell research essential to energy, economic crisis
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May 12, 2009
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Fuel Cell research essential to energy, economic crisis

In 1875, the Horseless Carriage Committee warned Congress that “stores of gasoline in the hands of people interested primarily in profit would constitute a hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline engines might attain speeds of 14 or even 20 miles per hour ... hurtling through our streets and poisoning our atmosphere.”

New technologies always present challenges but also offer an unmatched benefit that makes overcoming those challenges worth our while.

Just as the Horseless Carriage Committee never saw the industrial revolution coming, today’s critics of hydrogen and fuel-cell research don’t see where hydrogen is taking us now.

Contrary to the S.C. Policy Council’s contention (“Hydrogen research wastes scarce tax dollars,” Friday), the hydrogen revolution already has begun. Hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies are in real-world applications where they are providing a high-quality service at a value for companies in South Carolina and around the world. While most people focus on the highly visible automotive market, few realize that fuel-cell technologies already are being adopted in specialty applications where they provide an economically sound energy alternative.

Every new technology must evolve. Does anyone remember bag phones and punch cards? Just like it took time for computers to move from large expensive prototypes with limited applications to indispensable, mass-produced laptops, fuel cells will improve in price and performance. They will continue to become more common in our everyday life.

We’ve got to look down the road if we are going to take control of our economic and energy future. Our concerns over national energy security should make investment in fuel-cell technologies and the local production of hydrogen from a variety of energy sources a priority. A 2008 study from the National Research Council showed that while we could see a 50 percent reduction in imported oil by 2050 through efficiency gains in current vehicle technologies and use of hybrid vehicles, we would have to invest in hydrogen vehicles in order to achieve 100 percent energy independence.

South Carolina has a dynamic hydrogen community and the knowledge necessary to be a leader in the hydrogen economy through expertise at USC, S.C. State, Clemson, the Applied Research Center and Savannah River National Laboratory. Visionary leaders in our state, political and industry leaders together, recognize that investment in developing our hydrogen intellectual capital can propel our state toward becoming the Silicon Valley for hydrogen and fuel cells. We must have the courage to move forward.

Hydrogen and fuel cells are a strategic investment in South Carolina to create jobs in the short term and provide a structure for green growth in future years. South Carolina is at the point where initial investments in hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies have just begun to provide returns.

We are finding ways to move forward in this difficult economy. We just hosted an immensely successful National Hydrogen Association conference that yielded more than a dozen direct leads to companies interested in working with and within South Carolina. We are moving forward with state legislation (the 2009 Hydrogen Permitting Act) that will increase public safety, create a better place for businesses to work and promote South Carolina as a leader in the industry. And we are working to increase the funding available for the deployment of more projects through the Hydrogen Infrastructure Development Fund, authorized by the Legislature in 2007, that allows a state tax credit to contributors.

The tipping point of the hydrogen revolution is coming, when the market will fully drive the deployment of hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies. But these technologies will continue to be adopted by specialty applications such as back-up power and fork lift trucks before we see huge numbers of hydrogen vehicles on the road. The reality is that more and more fuel-cell systems will make financial sense in real-world applications, just like room-sized computers with punch cards made business sense to companies before the desktop computer.

The S.C. Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance welcomes an open discussion of the progress made in these technologies and enjoys sharing the successes in our state.

Dr. Baxter-Clemmons is executive director of the S.C. Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance.

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