WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Energy soon will launch a campaign to promote hydrogen cars, embracing a technology that was favored by the administration of President George W. Bush but initially shunned under Barack Obama.
The project is tentatively called H2USA, in reference to the chemical symbol for hydrogen gas. The DOE is signing up automakers, suppliers and other companies that want to see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles hit the marketplace.
"There still are a lot of challenges. Infrastructure is critical," said Sunita Satyapal, program manager for fuel cell technologies at the DOE. "But the fact that a number of entities are coming together to work together through this partnership is a very positive sign."
H2USA will lack the hefty resources of past forays into fuel cells, such as Bush's FreedomCAR initiative. But automakers hope the project marks a complete about-face by an administration that came into office several years ago and slashed its predecessor's funding for the technology.
"Even if it's not as robust as we would like to see, it's still a very good, meaningful move," said Michael Stanton, president of the Association of Global Automakers.
His group's member companies include Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, all three of which plan to start selling fuel cell electric vehicles within a few years.
Automakers have asked the Obama administration to be more positive about fuel cells, even if battery-powered electric vehicles continue to get the lion's share of funding. Even a symbolic gesture can push a technology forward, they say.
"Signals," said Britta Gross, director of global energy systems and infrastructure commercialization at General Motors Co, when asked why the Obama administration's stance matters. "Signals to infrastructure providers. Signals to states. This is true for any technology: Signals that show the direction and the strategy and the importance are very important. It's a confidence issue. It's a comfort issue."
Fuel cell technology remains expensive, but supporters say it potentially could combine the convenience of the gasoline engine with the cleanliness of electric cars.
"Every automaker understands the key role it could play in the marketplace," Gross said. "It is the only long-range, zero-emission, quick-fueling solution."
The tasks of the new DOE project have not been announced, but one will be to push for the fueling stations needed by the first wave of fuel cell vehicles, which are expected around 2015.
There are fewer than 100 hydrogen stations in the United States, and only about 20 are accessible to the public.
The California Energy Commission wants 68 public stations in the state by 2015, up from the 21 expected to be open at the end of 2013. But the commission has just $28.6 million to spend, potentially tens of millions less than it needs.
There are proposals in California to make oil companies chip in some of the funding, but automakers hoped DOE might help pay for hydrogen fueling stations. But DOE does not intend to help pay for fueling stations through the new project, Satyapal said.
The government spent $1.7 billion on fuel cells from 2004 through 2008 through the FreedomCar coalition, which included GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, as well as several oil companies.
In 2009, after President Obama took office, new Energy Secretary Steven Chu proposed to cut $100 million in funding for hydrogen.
Congress restored some of the money after car companies protested. Chu, who will soon leave the Obama administration, later recanted his criticism of fuel cells.
"In the last year or two, I've been saying: 'Look, this is an important technology. We want to continue to support the research, to drive down the cost,' " he told reporters at the Washington Auto Show in January.
Last year, in a holdover from the FreedomCar push, a DOE lab in Colorado released the results of a seven-year, $350 million fuel cell vehicle development project. Some funds came from Hyundai, GM, Ford and Daimler AG.
Researchers found fuel cells are twice as durable as they were in 2004 and are capable of powering 75,000 miles of driving before being replaced.
During the past few years, "there's been a lot of progress," Satyapal said, despite a "misperception that there hasn't been interest in hydrogen and fuel cells."