Hydrogen Funding Reversal Provides a Cautionary Tale

Last Updated Jul 30, 2009 5:11 AM EDT

Those wishing for immediate government support of all forms of green energy technology are forewarned: Once a technology is government-supported, it may be nearly impossible to get rid of, even if it proves not to be a great option. That's the case with hydrogen, for which Department of Energy secretary Steven Chu has just tried, and failed to cut back funding.

Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist who previously led one of the nation's largest labs, might strike you as the sort of guy who knows what he's talking about when he says, as he first did back in May, that we won't have a hydrogen transportation infrastructure 10 or even 20 years out.

Nevermind all that, say senators from states that now have hydrogen interests. The Wall Street Journal points out Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, who said the DOE made a "significant mistake" in trying to cut funding. Dorgan's scientific basis for supporting hydrogen is in the the balance sheets of the University of North Dakota, which receives large amounts of funding for research on the subject.

Hydrogen is hardly the first example of such entrenched interest in cleantech, of course. The best to date is corn ethanol, which got its first big push from the Bush Administration around the same time as hydrogen. Despite corn's many shortfallings, its subsidies have proven impossible to trim against the resistance of Midwestern senators.

In the meantime tariffs, fuel standards and other political barbed wire have sprung up to protect existing corn ethanol production, and provide room for future growth.

What's done is done, one might say -- ethanol and hydrogen won't be gone anytime soon. But this is a good time to take a look at other technologies that might not prove to be great ideas. Take wind for example; support for wind power has grown steadily, and turbines are popping up in many of the same states that are carpeted with ethanol-producing corn fields.

It remains far too early to tell whether wind, an intermittent, often unreliable power source, should truly be one of the cornerstones of our electrical supply. Investments into wind power might be better spent elsewhere, like geothermal or solar power. But switching might prove too difficult a battle, if the energy is being produced in different states, from different sources.

Of course, it would be impossible to develop clean technology at all without government support. Subsidies make the market. But if the Bush administration taught us anything, it was that major decisions -- whether wars or new energy sources -- should be thought out thoroughly, by someone other than a politician.

So far, it doesn't seem to be happening.