2 ‘green’ technologies race for driver’s seat

Times Staff Writer

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, funding 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 what kind of cars we all drive in the future.


The camps are competing for potentially more than $2 billion in federal funding over the next five years and are lobbying for regulations that could have a profound effect on which type of car winds up on dealer lots.

“It’s just unfortunate that there has to be so much infighting,” said Patricia Monahan of 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. But critics (some of whom call the technology “fool cells”) contend that 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 easily contained without energy-consuming compressors or maintaining them in liquid form at extremely low temperatures.

Plug-in hybrids also are powered by electricity, but they 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 charge the batteries and extend the range of the vehicle.

Plug-in critics say battery technology isn’t advanced enough for long-range driving, and they doubt that the current electric infrastructure is robust enough to effectively 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 this week in Anaheim 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 Inc., dismissed fuel cells. His Vancouver, Canada, company makes batteries for $80,000 Fisker plug-in luxury cars that are expected on the market by the end of next year.

“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 Inc. of Burnaby, Canada, 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 have largely straddled 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 it has begun lending 100 Chevy Equinox fuel-cell SUVs to selected drivers. Ford Motor Co. handed over the keys to 20 plug-ins to Southern California Edison Co. last week, less than a month after buying, along with Daimler, Ballard’s automotive fuel-cell business in a deal valued at $228 million.

Toyota Motor Corp. 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 was, by most accounts, fairly balanced between technologies. That changed in this decade, particularly after President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, in which he called for a “national commitment” to fuel cells, pledging $1.2 billion for the first five years of a 10-year development program.

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

Well-organized trade groups like the U.S. Fuel Cell Council and the National Hydrogen Assn. are lobbying hard to ramp up hydrogen-related funding in coming budgets, but plug-in advocates have a surprisingly muted voice in 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.

The disparity plays out on the regulatory side as well. Despite protests from the likes of Geller and a few activist scientists, California’s complicated mandates requiring manufacturers to make zero-emission vehicles have for several years significantly favored fuel-cell vehicles over battery-powered ones.

Still, points out Bud deFlaviis, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council’s director of government affairs, plug-in cars have one considerable advantage. “Batteries are a highly commercial product, but there are no truly viable hydrogen fuel cells on the market today,” he said.

Thanks to growing sales of advanced lithium ion and other batteries in products including cordless drills and cellular phones, firms such as A123 Systems of Massachusetts (which makes batteries for power tools as well as cars) have income they can use for research. “That’s a huge leg up,” DeFlaviis said.

Even if one technology shows more immediate promise, it’s important not to give up on the other, said Claudia Chandler of the California Energy Commission, which was recently given $120 million by the state Legislature to fund research on alternative fuels. “We’re not picking winners right now,” she said.