Will GM Abandon Hydrogen Cars?

| About: General Motors (GM)

By Ucilia Wang

Advocates of hydrogen fuel cell cars are a bit miffed about the attention and money the federal government is showering on companies making plug-in hybrid electric or all-electric cars.

It's not hard to understand why. The government is giving out billions of dollars to carmakers for build different types of electric vehicles. Consumers can get rebates for buying them.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Steve Chu has proposed to cut millions of dollars from the hydrogen car program for the next fiscal year. The reason, Chu said, is because hydrogen cars aren't likely to be ready for the mass market for another 10 to 20 years, and that's just too far down the road.

"I was at a fuel cell meeting last week, and people were lamenting that all those EV people are killing our technologies," said Dave Barthmuss, General Motors' (GMGMQ.PK) western region manager for environmental and energy communications, during his talk at the Edison Electric Institute's annual convention in San Francisco on Wednesday. EEI represents the country's investor-owned utilities.

Barthmuss was making a point that it will take different kinds of low or zero-emission cars to move the country away from relying on fossil fuel vehicles. Barthmuss noted that GM already has invested billions in developing hydrogen cars.

As General Motors works on restructuring its business and emerging out of bankruptcy in the next few months, the company will have to think hard about what to do with its hydrogen fuel cell car program, he said in an interview after his talk.

"It's like we have swam halfway across the English Channel only have to turn back," Barthmuss said. "We don't need any more breakthroughs to bring the cars into commercial market by 2015."

What GM needs is for the federal government to fund the installation of hydrogen fuel stations across the country. Creating that network of pump stations across the country will be crucial to popularizing hydrogen cars.

California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the "Hydrogen Highway" initiative in 2004 to position California as a leader in adopting zero emission technologies.

That program hasn't been successful – there are 25 pump stations that have been built in the state, Barthmuss said. But only a handful could completely fill out GM's hydrogen demo car, the Equinox, because of the varying amount of pressure used to compress the hydrogen gas (10,000 psi for the Equinox versus 5,000 psi being dispensed at many pumping stations).

GM has been running the Project Driveway program to test the marketability of hydrogen cars. It gives a limited number of Equinox vehicles to consumers to tool around for two months and then gets their feedback afterwards.

California regulators, including the head of the state Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, has written to Chu and other environmental officials in President Obama's administration and argued that the government should fund all sorts of alternative vehicle technologies to achieve its emissions reduction goals (see a post in Grist).

Critics have said it's far more costly to build a hydrogen car than an electric car, so why bet on hydrogen vehicles when cheaper and still cleaner alternatives exist?

While GM will have to figure out what to do with its hydrogen car program, it's firmly set on introducing its plug-in hybrid electric car, the Chevy Volt, in November next year.

"Part of our restructuring plan is based on the Chevy Volt," Barthmuss said. "That's the key to our reinvention."