From: Alejandro Bodipo-Memba, Detroit Free Press
Published January 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Michigan Development Agency, Auto Executives Focus on Fuel-Cell Technology

Jan. 13—Michigan's role in developing fuel-cell technology for the future generation of cars and how to transform the region into the fuel-cell capital of the world were the topics at a panel discussion Wednesday sponsored by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The MEDC hosted Gov. Jennifer Granholm, auto executives and several hundred audience members to talk about the vision for the automobile in 15 years and Michigan's role in developing products and businesses of the future, as part of the 2005 North American International Auto Show at Detroit's Cobo Center.

Granholm joined representatives from General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG, Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Hyundai-Kia Motors Co. at the event.

Hydrogen fuel cells, which create electricity through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, are a key part of the alternative energy equation for automakers. The only by-product of these cells is water vapor.

When asked what government can do to help promote alternative energy research, panelists were unanimous in their suggestion: Spread the word.

"Don't be in a hurry to deploy a lot of infrastructure... Be supportive of the work we're doing," said David Hermance, executive engineer, environmental engineering for Toyota Technical Center USA Inc. "Encourage the universities to spend a lot of the time on the study of hydrogen storage."

"Hydrogen represents the promise for a better future for you and me," said Vance Zanardelli, Ford's manager of strategic powertrain technologies. "Hydrogen is the future."

The governor seems to be heeding the message.

Since taking office in 2003, Granholm has made research and development of hydrogen fuel cells in Michigan a priority of her administration and as a way to attract business and talent to the state.

A strong supporter of the state's $50- million NextEnergy fuel-cell project at Wayne State University, Granholm has made high-tech job creation a staple of her speeches around the state.

NextEnergy is a corporation founded by MEDC to advance Michigan as a leader in the study of alternative energy. Last January, Granholm spent a significant amount of her State of the State address talking about the importance of fuel-cell research to the growth of the Michigan economy. At the time, she announced a six-point economic plan that included making Michigan the hub for fuel cell research.

"We're very interested in being the automotive capital of the world and leveraging that great legacy," Granholm said Wednesday. "We want to foster the technologies that layer into the 21st-Century automobile."

Given that Americans spend 500 million hours a week in their cars, the experts suggested advancements in automobile technology are certain to be critical for the future success of auto sales in the next 15 years.

Consumers have begun to demand environmentally conscious products that don't sacrifice performance. The importance of hybrid technologies, and eventually hydrogen fuel cells, is expected to grow in North America.

The panel agreed that hybrid vehicles are expected to remain a significant market player — around 5 percent of the vehicles sold — by 2020.

The group was split on when, if ever, hydrogen fuel cells would supplant currently available hybrid technology as a replacement for the internal combustion engine. In fact, there is still some debate on whether fuel cells will ultimately be the next level of powertrain technology.

"It is not crystal clear yet which technology is going to be winner," Hermance said. "We now view hybrids as the enabler of the next generation of technology. But, gasoline will continue to dominate at least through 2020 and possibly beyond that."

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