The President's Big Plan for Green Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 18, 2011

My Toyota Highlander fuel-cell car, ready for the "hydrogen highway." (Jim Motavalli photo)
My Toyota Highlander fuel-cell car, ready for the "hydrogen highway." (Jim Motavalli photo)

Whew, that's a load off my mind. I've spent the last month barely coming out of my office tower (they brought up meals on a tray) as I finished my green car book, High Voltage, for Rodale. But that's been sent off to the publishers as an email--not the much more ceremonial bound manuscript of old. And I'm glad to be returning to the Car Talk corral--just in time for President Obama's budget!

Reading through a full budget document is like scanning the fine print on those software licenses we all click "accept" on. Have you seen those scary pictures of Congressional pages delivering towering stacks of budget documents? The Obama budget is reeeeeally long, 2,403 pages, including a 360-page appendix. Can you imagine any of our elected officials, from John Kerry to Michele Bachman, actually sitting down and reading every page before they go on CNN and offer their opinions?

Like them, I skim the bullet points, and that's good enough for me. The highlights, specifically of the Energy Department budget, are pretty interesting. Despite cost-cutting fever gripping the capital like a bad cold, Obama is proposing to allocate $29.5 billion for energy projects, a 12 percent budget increase from 2010. His budget puts $8 billion into research on wind, solar and electric car batteries.

The 2012 priorities are pretty clear. Obama is going on a job-creation offensive, and if he gets the atmospherics right it could be political winner. "Whomever leads in the global, clean-energy economy will also take the lead in creating high-paying, highly skilled jobs for its people," the administration said. Obama's interest in clean energy job creation explains the department's budget increase, said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Here he is briefing the media, and through the magic of YouTube you can watch all 46 minutes. Be warned the guy isn't exactly charismatic:

The most controversial aspect of the budget is what's in and what's out. In are electric cars--the budget includes $580 million to help set up strategic EV "deployment communities." These are cities with a lot of early adopters that will get lucrative subsidies. The basic idea is that as many as 30 regions would get grants of up to $10 million each to subsidize charging stations and EV purchases. It's an idea enshrined by the Electrification Coalition (Nissan and a bunch of utilities are members), which has the President's ear. The coalition says that 75 percent of our miles traveled can be electric by 2040--if we go ahead and enact its legislation. As Vice President Biden says, it's a way to reach the Obama goal of a million plug-in cars by 2015.

The Nissan Leaf stands to benefit from "EV deployment communities." (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Nissan Leaf stands to benefit from "EV deployment communities." (Jim Motavalli photo)

The rest of the money would go to extending the existing $7,500 federal tax credit for electric cars. Right now, it runs out after carmakers like GM sell 200,000 cars. Obama, and the Michigan Congressional delegation, want to extend the manufacturers' limit to 500,000. Call it the Volt bill, because the Volt is likely to have substantial volumes.

So I said that EVs are in, but hydrogen funding is most definitely out. Chu, who has it in for fuel cells, tried to make a $100 million cut in the 2010 budget but was rebuffed by Congress. Now he wants to cut fuel-cell funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by nearly $70 million (40 percent), and also zero out a fuel-cell program in the Fossil Energy Office.

There's a fuel-cell caucus in each house of Congress, and they'll be heard from defending their funding. The support may be less than it was in 2009, though, because budget-cutting is so popular. This may be one of the aspects of the Obama budget that some Tea Party Republicans actually like.

The timing is interesting, because fuel-cell cars are finally reaching the commercialization stage, after decades when hydrogen was "the forever fuel" -- always 20 years out. Toyota, Honda and General Motors are all looking at 2015 as a turning point, and the two Japanese companies are promising to offer commercial versions of the cars by then.

Not only that, but Tom Sullivan of Lumber Liquidators has pledged to build a "hydrogen highway" up and down the east coast, from Maine to Florida. The first of maybe a dozen stations has been installed in Connecticut, and I'm driving a Toyota Highlander FCHV-adv that refuels there. So the timing is pretty bad, hydrogen advocates say.

To pay for clean energy programs, Obama also wants to repeal $3.6 billion in oil, natural gas and coal subsidies, which would total $46.2 billion over a decade. He also wants to cut oil and gas research money. We'll see if that one flies--Congress is full of elected representatives whose re-election campaigns are floated on oil and gas money. Energy analysts are skeptical that a lot of Obama's ideas will get through.

So, no, I didn't read all 2,403 pages, but those are the key details. If you want to really get into the weeds on this, just follow the first link at the top of the page.

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