Washington, D.C. – A new report from the U.S. National Research Council has found that a transition to hydrogen vehicles could greatly reduce U.S. oil dependence and carbon dioxide emissions, but will require support for research and development, and firm commitments from the automotive industry and the federal government, to make fuel cell and hydrogen production technology viable. The report said that vehicle costs are high and that the U.S. currently lacks the infrastructure to produce and widely distribute hydrogen to consumers.

According to the committee, it will take many years before hydrogen vehicles will significantly penetrate the light-duty fleet, even though technological developments have been progressing rapidly. While production of hydrogen vehicles could increase significantly by 2015, their cost would still need to be heavily subsidized for consumers, and that the maximum practicable number of hydrogen vehicles that could be on the road by 2020 is two million. By 2023, the total cost of fuel cell vehicles, including the cost of hydrogen fuel over the vehicle’s lifetime, could become competitive with conventional vehicles. At that point, growth could be rapid, to nearly 60 million vehicles in 2035 and 200 million by 2050.

The committee also calculated the public and private investments that would be needed to make a complete transition from oil to hydrogen, including the costs of research and development, vehicle deployment, and establishing infrastructure, and found that government support via strong policy initiatives and funding would be needed until at least 2023. The cost to the government would be about US$55 billion between 2008 and 2023, and US$145 billion to private industry.

The shift toward hydrogen fuel would not have a large impact on oil usage or emissions until hydrogen vehicles make up a significant portion of the market. The committee said that improving the fuel efficiency of conventional vehicles or converting to biofuels could produce reductions in oil use and emissions faster than hydrogen because they can be implemented more rapidly, but after about 2040, hydrogen would become more effective. The greatest possible reductions would occur if biofuels, fuel-efficient conventional vehicles and hydrogen vehicles were pursued simultaneously, rather than seen as competitors.

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