Hydrogen Still Sacred Despite Core Cuts

March 25, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveCiting South Carolina’s distressed economic situation, the House recently passed an appropriations bill that, among other things, eliminate assistance to children with autism, people with spine and brain injuries, and the long-term disabled in job programs.

Yet, at the same time it wants to continue funneling scarce tax dollars into the money pit of hydrogen research.

The 2010-2011 House Appropriations bill calls for more than $700,000 to go to hydrogen research. The money would be passed through the University of South Carolina. That’s on top of $2,225,000 spent on hydrogen last year.

Over the past few years, more than $40 million in state and local tax dollars has been allocated to hydrogen in the Midlands alone.

All the while, funding for core services such as law enforcement, prisons and education continues to dwindle. In the past two years alone, state funding for K-12 public schools has been cut by $484 million, for example.

What’s even more frustrating is that there is neither demand nor supply for hydrogen fuel in South Carolina.

There are but a handful of hydrogen-fueled cars in the state, as hydrogen-fueled vehicles can cost anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million and the fuel is considerably more expensive than gasoline.

In addition, there are just two hydrogen fueling stations in the entire state.

(Those were partially paid for last year when the state Legislature slipped a proviso into the budget that repaid $1,450,800 in loans taken out by the city of Columbia and Aiken County for the fueling stations. That money went to pay off loans originally taken out by the municipalities through the ConserFund, a low-interest program administered by the S.C. Energy Office.)

And there are serious questions about hydrogen’s practicality. It’s been called the “least efficient, most expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases,” by Joseph Romm, a physicist in charge of renewable energy research during the Carter administration.

If all that weren’t enough to discourage state-funded investment in hydrogen, there are also concerns about a lack of transparency regarding how tax dollars are being spent and what South Carolinians are getting for their investment in hydrogen.

Last June, House Speaker Bobby Harrell issued a press release touting that taxpayer-funded investment in hydrogen over the years had netted the state 229 jobs. The release added that 65 percent of those jobs had been created in the past five years, or fewer than 30 a year.

Requests to Harrell’s office for a detailed listing of the 229 jobs, including a breakdown by position, location and average salary, went unanswered. So The Nerve turned to the South Carolina Hydrogen Fuel Cell Alliance, the source of the job-creation figures, to try and determine how much of the data was real and how much was simply smoke and mirrors.

After submitting an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request seeking detailed information on jobs created, investment and public dollars spent on hydrogen research in South Carolina, the S.C. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Alliance forwarded a copy of the same fact sheet it sent the Speaker’s office earlier this year.

Further attempts to determine the source of the Alliance’s numbers for hydrogen-related job creation and investment in South Carolina have failed.

Alliance Executive Director Shannon Baxter-Clemmons said that because The Nerve did not include a specific request for verification of the information provided to the Speaker’s Office in its original FOIA, it would only turn over such data if another open-records request was filed.

So while South Carolina’s citizens face the very real threat of having essential government services trimmed or even eliminated, the individuals who purport to represent them are willing to gamble away tax dollars on risky investments rather than put them toward basic needs.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at kevin@scpolicycouncil.com.