Tuesday, August 18, 2009

US Congress revives hydrogen vehicle research

US funding for hydrogen-fuelled transportation research got a boost on 17 July as the House of Representatives voted to restore $85 million to the research budget . The administration of President Barack Obama had proposed cutting the funds altogether. In May, energy secretary Steven Chu sparked an uproar when he proposed slashin current spending on research into hydrogen-based energy technology by 60%, from $168 million this fiscal year to $68 million in 2010, and cutting funding entirely for work on hydrogen vehicles. Former president George W. Bush made hydrogen transportation a cornerstone of his energy research strategy, but Chu said biofuels and batteries offer a better short-term pathway to reducing oil use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Advocates both among scientists and on Capitol Hill have rushed to defend the hydrogen programme in recent weeks. It seems to have worked: the House included a total of $153 million for hydrogen-energy research in its version of the 2010 energy and water spending bill.

In the Senate, appropriators have provided $190 million for hydrogen research — a 13% increase over the base budget for 2009 — although the full Senate has yet to take up the legislation. A final bill is unlikely to come for another few months , but some level of funding for hydrogen vehicle research is likely to survive. Also last week, a National Research Council (NRC) panel weighed in on the debate with a preliminary report on the FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership, a research consortium involving industry and government. The NRC committee endorsed the general thrust of the transportation research agenda of the Department of Energy (DOE) but said it is concerned about efforts to scale back work on hydrogen-fuelled transport. Citing the long-term potential of hydrogen fuel cells, the panel said it is not yet clear which vehicle technologies will prevail in the market. “There was no disagreement on the DOE’s approach to put more emphasis on nearer-term technologies, but we felt that the long-term, high-risk, high-payoff nations. The Alliance of Small Island States has proposed a mechanism that is similar to the MCII proposal but with one key difference: its members want outright compensation, rather than just insurance, for long-term problems associated with issues such as ocean acidification and rising sea levels.

Responsible action
The word ‘compensation’ raises concerns in industrialized nations, who don’t want to sign a blank cheque, but the alliance isn’t backing down. Many see the language as a warning to industrial nations regarding the costs of inaction. “If you are one of these low-lying atolls in the Pacific, would you say ‘thank you very much’ to a deal that submerges your island over time?” asks M. J. Mace, a negotiator for the Federated States of Micronesia. “If there’s a deal, it’s got to address impacts, one way or another.”

One potential compromise under discussion would be to include an insurance mechanism in whatever deal is struck and then acknowledge the long-term compensation issue in a more symbolic manner. To date, the best model for large-scale multilateral insurance may be the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Initiative. Launched in 2007 with $47 million in funding from several international donors, the index insurance pool now provides hurricane and earthquake insurance to 16 Caribbean nations. Much as the Ethiopian policy is tied to rainfall, the Caribbean policies are based on observations of wind speed and earthquake intensity.

That saves money on site audits and speeds up the process, providing money immediately after a crisis when it is needed most. “It gives them a bit of breathing room,” says Simon Young, the Washington DC-based head of the non-profit firm Caribbean Risk Managers, which manages the programme.

So far, the Caribbean programme has paid out nearly $1 million for an earthquake that affected St Lucia and Dominica in 2007, and $6.3 million to the Turks and Caicos Islands after Hurricane Ike last year. Young says that their models try to take into account factors such as building codes and other preventative action, which should lower premiums as well as lessen damage during a storm.

Insurance advocates acknowledge that spreading insurance tools around the globe would benefit developing nations regardless of global warming, as illustrated by the Caribbean initiative. But fears about increased droughts, floods and more severe weather that could be associated with global warming have added momentum. “Climate change is more or less a new impulse for promoting this,” says Thomas Loster, chairman of the Munich Re Foundation, a non-profit philanthropic branch of the German reinsurance giant. “But of course we should have done it 20 years ago.”

Source of information : Nature 23 July 2009

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