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Bush sees benefit in hydrogen research

Amid the caps and cuts in the governor's proposed budget is a spending program he wants to more than double: hydrogen research.

Jeb Bush likes the idea so much he hopped into the driver's seat of a hydrogen-powered Toyota Highlander on Thursday and circled the Capitol.

He pronounced the ride "very smooth and quiet."

It's also billed as environmentally friendly. Of the potential replacements for the fossil fuels, hydrogen is the cleanest. Hydrogen cars use a fuel cell that produces electricity and emits water vapor, not air pollution.

But it's very expensive.

When Bush unveiled his budget proposals this week, he called on the Legislature to spend $15-million in the next year on hydrogen research, $9-million more than what the state is spending on the subject this year.

Bush wants to use the money to attract to Florida companies like Ford and British Petroleum that already are experimenting with hydrogen, creating a public-private partnership that reduces their investment risk.

The plan calls for the state's first-ever hydrogen fueling station in the Orlando area next year and another in Tampa later.

But Joseph Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen, said it makes no sense for any state to risk millions on the fledgling hydrogen business now.

"Any companies investing in this are going to want all these guarantees from the government," said Romm, who was in charge of hydrogen research for the U.S. Department of Energy under President Clinton. "My view is this is long-term technology being developed. I don't think states should be spending a lot of money building fueling stations right now."

Yet, attracted by the promise of abundant federal funds and the possibility of new jobs, plenty of states are trying to hop on the hydrogen bandwagon, said Allan Bedwell, deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

"If we make this small investment, then we could see tens of millions of dollars coming back as investments from the companies that are doing this," Bedwell said.

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush announced a billion-dollar federal effort to develop a car by 2020 that would run on hydrogen.

He called it "Freedom Fuel."

The Freedom Fuel drive has sputtered, running into problems ranging from the name _ several businesses were already using the term _ to a lack of money, caused by Congress earmarking much of the Freedom Car cash for its own pet projects.

Yet hydrogen remains popular with politicians of all stripe.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates say they support developing hydrogen fuel technology, while Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to build a "hydrogen highway" with 200 hydrogen fueling stations lining interstates by 2010.

"He's trying to overcome the fact he drives a Humvee and he is feeling ashamed of that," Gov. Bush joked about his fellow Republican.

However, Schwarzenegger's budget for next year includes no money for hydrogen, Bedwell said. "We're putting our money where our mouth is."

Don't look for hydrogen-powered Highlanders to flood the highways any time soon.

Energy experts say the day when there's a hydrogen car in every garage is a decade or more away.

A big problem is the cost.

The fuel cells are at least 30 times more expensive than an internal combustion engine, Romm said, while the cost of producing hydrogen fuel is equivalent to paying $4 for a gallon of gas.

The $6-million Florida is spending this year on hydrogen is not even focused on transportation. DEP hopes to use hydrogen fuel cells to power a wildlife care center at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, for instance, and to light a student dormitory at the private University of Miami.

Meanwhile, DEP and U.S. Rep. David Weldon, R-Merritt Island, have created a consortium of experts called the Florida Hydrogen Partnership, and Weldon has lined up a possible $2-million federal grant. But at this point, the consortium has no definite plans for spending the money, said David Block of the University of Central Florida, who has helped lead the Florida Hydrogen Partnership.

"If the appropriation goes okay," he said, "then we could very well formulate to do something."

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.