In 2003, President George W. Bush presented a challenge to unite behind the goal of taking fuel cell vehicles from the laboratory to the showroom, "so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free." Today, his challenge has been met: three automobile companies now offer these zero-emission vehicles, with more to come.
But that is just the first step. There is much that Washington must now do to ensure American leadership in the highly competitive transportation sector. If lawmakers currently seeking federal tax reform to promote job growth retain the tax credit for battery-powered vehicles, they should level the playing field for fuel cell vehicles, which currently lack the same incentives that are enjoyed by their battery-powered counterparts.
Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen fuel cells to create electricity for their motors, and battery-powered vehicles rely on electricity supplied from the grid. But both are alike in that they produce zero emissions. This is important because either will satisfy a patchwork of state and federal rules that require car companies to sell zero-emission vehicles to meet various emission and mileage obligations. Automakers and state governments alike see the need to encourage the growth of both types of zero-emission vehicles to meet these goals.
Yet the end of 2016, Congress allowed a key tax credit to expire for fuel cell vehicles, despite the ongoing federal tax incentives for battery electric vehicles. By righting this wrong, Congress can restore fairness to the marketplace, provide new job opportunities and give consumers a real choice in future vehicle purchases.
Fuel cell vehicles combine the zero-emissions benefits of electric vehicles with the convenience of today's driving experience. You can travel 300 to 400 miles on a single fill-up of hydrogen fuel, and a refueling takes only three to five minutes.
In California, 31 hydrogen stations are available for public use, with another 30 in various stages of planning and construction. This means today's FCV driver can travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and even to Lake Tahoe, without worrying about finding a fueling station. And stations are now expanding beyond California to the Northeast.
Those 30+ hydrogen stations in California stand in stark contrast with the more than 15,000 public electric-vehicle charging stations across the country. Sales numbers tell a similar story — over 80,000 battery electric vehicles were sold in 2016, while approximately 2,000 fuel cell vehicles are on the road now, almost all of them in California. As these numbers show, fuel cell vehicles have much ground to make up.
The lack of federal tax incentive parity is a serious and unjustified roadblock to that parity. By favoring one zero-emission technology over another, government tax policy is picking winners and losers and preventing American consumers from choosing the technology that best meets their needs.
There's another price Americans will pay for zero-emission tax inequality — lost job growth and technological leadership. Although fuel cell vehicles available in the United States today are imports, America is the global leader in fuel cell technology and would benefit from a shift to hydrogen power. In fact, General Motors and Honda recently announced an $85 million investment in a joint fuel cell manufacturing plant in Brownstown, Michigan that will create jobs and support the local economy.
Historically, automakers invest in manufacturing plants where markets exist. Should the policy remain the same, America's fuel cell vehicle manufacturing, distribution and supply workers may miss the opportunity to build these next-generation vehicles. As the nation has seen with other innovative technologies, once the jobs go offshore, they seldom return.
Fuel cell vehicles also play a key role in achieving energy independence by reducing our reliance on foreign oil, as the hydrogen is derived from domestic sources.
The bottom line is simple. Americans are ready for hydrogen and fuel cell technology. The coming tax reform effort offers members of Congress the opportunity to shift their job growth and energy security plans into high gear by assuring that tax policy is fair to fuel cell vehicles.
Morry Markowitz is president of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, a national collaborative dedicated to the commercialization of fuel cell vehicles.
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