updated 3/4/2004 11:39:16 AM ET 2004-03-04T16:39:16

The head of the government’s fuel cell initiative defended President Bush’s proposed budget Wednesday, saying it allows for much-needed research into hydrogen without harming research into wind energy and other renewables.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, and other members of the panel expressed concern that Bush wants to transfer too much from other programs to pay for the year-old initiative. Bush has recommended $227 million in spending for fuel cell research and development in his 2005 budget.

“It appears that other alternative energy sources are suffering,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich.

David Garman, assistant energy secretary for energy efficiency, said overall funding for his department is up 4.8 percent. While there were some shifts to pay for fuel cells, money for wind energy, hydropower, solar energy and geothermal research is all up.

“I don’t feel encumbered or savaged. I feel blessed,” Garman said.

The committee called the hearing to respond to two reports released last month on the five-year, $1.2 billion initiative, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society.

Both reports cautioned that spending on other renewables, as well as hybrid vehicles, must continue as fuel cell research progresses. Both reports also concluded there should be more emphasis on basic science. They also said the administration’s goal of making hydrogen fuel cell vehicles road-ready by 2020 may be overly aggressive.

“The bottom line is that major scientific breakthroughs are needed for the hydrogen economy to succeed,” said Peter Eisenberger, chairman of the American Physical Society.

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., said the government isn’t providing enough to overcome those obstacles, which include how to store and transport hydrogen and how best to generate it.

“Never has there been such a great need with so little funding,” Larson said.

Garman said the money is adequate, but the program has been hurt by lawmakers, who earmarked $67 million for specific projects in the 2004 budget for fuel cell development instead of letting the department decide its own priorities.

Garman agreed with the conclusion that more basic research is needed, but said the department isn’t spending too much on demonstration projects, as the American Physical Society suggested. Garman said about 13 percent of the fuel cell budget goes to small-scale demonstration projects, while more than half goes to various research programs.

But in response to the criticism, the 2005 budget includes $29 million for basic research that will be conducted by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is separate from Garman’s department.

Garman said the fuel cell initiative is balancing on a “razor’s edge” between those who want more research and those who want to rush fuel cell vehicles into wider use.

“We should not be in a rush to deploy vehicles ... to force market adoption for an option that’s not ready,” Garman said. “(But) we don’t want this to become a basic research program that in 20 to 30 years has yielded no results.”

The written testimony statements are online at www.house.gov/science/hearings/full04/index.htm.

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