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Fuel Cells Not Enough

Ediutorial for March 28

Fuel cells not enough

Bush Administration support for a plan to develop hydrogen-based fuel cells to replace the internal combustion engine is an encouraging sign. Perhaps our political leaders are getting serious about weaning the United States away from its almost addictive reliance on oil.

But it is our guess that researchers and automakers can walk and chew gum at the same time, so we're not convinced that pushing fuel cell research means the administration has to abandon an 8-year-old project to develop high-mileage gasoline powered vehicles, as it claims. Why can't both avenues be pursued?

Like other alternative energy sources, fuel cells have a lot of potential. And, again like many alternatives, they have had potential for years. Unfortunately, potential has never quite made it to reality.

Not that the high-mileage program has shown any great success either. Prototype vehicles that got at least 70 miles per gallon were developed by the Big Three automakers -- General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Daimler-Chrysler -- but none came close to commercial production of an 80-mpg car, the aim of the program. Still, any improvement is welcome. Maybe what is needed is a more serious effort to make such a vehicle a commercial success.

Meanwhile, the average fuel economy of cars and trucks has continued to slip, with this year's fleet getting the worst mileage in 21 years, and automakers continue to resist any increase in government-mandated fuel economy standards. Those standards have been unchanged for a decade.

Developing fuel cells is a worthwhile pursuit. But it's unlikely to yield any real rewards for at least a decade or two. In the meantime, drivers will continue to guzzle gasoline.

With five percent of the planet's population, the United States sucks up 25 percent of its oil. Maybe that's the price for being the world's most vibrant industrial economy. But Sept. 11 and its aftermath reminded the nation that reliance on foreign oil can be a tricky and dangerous thing.

Go ahead and research fuel cells and other alternatives. The sooner researchers find a viable replacement for gasoline, the better off the country will be. And odds are that, someday, a replacement will have to be found. But in the meantime, don't ignore steps that can be taken to make using gasoline more efficient and cleaner, including requiring automakers to build vehicles that get better mileage.

The time to begin the county's journey away from oil is now, not 10 or 20 years from now.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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