Chain of Thought

Fuel Cells Powered by Grass Roots

The last time I spoke with Ruth Cox, she was furious. As president and executive director of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, she told me how frustrated she was that the Obama Administration wasn't taking fuel cells seriously as a viable alternative source of clean energy.

“It has been politicized based on preferences that some people in the White House had for other technologies and they don't want competition for what they believe is the answer to the problem,” she told me. “That's why Congress is getting behind our movement. They want the market to decide. It is not the responsibility of this Administration to pick the winners and losers. Given the situation we face with imported oil, the disaster we had in Japan with the nuclear facility, the fact that there are issues with the clean energy technologies that can be mitigated with fuel cells, there's no excuse for fuel cells and hydrogen not to be embraced as an integral component of this portfolio. We need every clean energy option to reach our goals.”

Well, it looks like her allies in Congress are making progress in keeping fuel cells in the clean energy mix. Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat representing the 21st District of New York, and who was president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority from 2007-2008, has teamed up with Congressman Chris Gibson, a Republican representing New York's 20th district, on a bill to simplify and improve the tax credit for fuel cell-powered industrial vehicles. The goal is to boost new investments in clean technology and create thousands of jobs. They made this joint announcement during a press conference at Plug Power's headquarters in Latham, NY. Plug Power makes fuel-cell-based power solutions for lift trucks.

When I spoke with Cox last week she said she was only cautiously optimistic that fuel cell research would be a beneficiary in the Senate Appropriations Bill for 2012. However, the real hope for this technology lies at the grass roots level, and if material handling professionals start putting it to work en-masse, that may get the Administration's attention.

The best way to encourage investment is to make tax credits easier to get, and that's the idea behind Tonko's and Gibson's efforts. Currently, the tax credit for industrial vehicles is based on a confusing formula intended for technology that provides electricity for stationary property, like a building. Unlike buildings, vehicles have thousands of moving parts that are all integrated and adapted to use fuel cell power as efficiently as possible in a much smaller area.

“Many new industrial vehicles use highly integrated systems, making it nearly impossible to separate out which individual pieces of the vehicle are part of the ‘power plant' and eligible for the tax credit and which parts are ineligible,” Tonko's official press release states. “When the credit is applied to something like a forklift, the result is an engineering and accounting nightmare confusing not only for manufacturers and consumers, but also for the IRS. As a result, the current credit goes underused and America loses a valuable manufacturing boost in a clean energy industry where we are uniquely competitive in the global market.”

Under the new Bill, rather than going through a complicated back and forth with the IRS and vehicle manufacturers, buyers purchasing fuel cell-powered lift trucks will immediately know the exact amount of their tax credit just by looking at the weight of the vehicle they are purchasing – just like the tax credit for clean energy cars and trucks. Vehicles weighing up to 8,500 pounds will receive a $4,000 credit, plus an additional $1,500 for an energy efficiency rating of 40% or better. The legislation would also restore the full credit of $8,000 for passenger cars, which had been reduced by half at the start of 2011.

If you'd like to fertilize this grass roots movement to develop the market for fuel cells in material handling, you can visit the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy website and use the tool on that site to write a letter to your Congress person. If anything, the folks in the White House could gain a better appreciation for the unseen technologies that support America's standard of living.

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