Fresh from his ascent to the number four position in the U.S. House Democratic caucus, Congressman John Larson of East Hartford (in photo) returned to the state Capitol today to discuss Connecticut’s fuel cell economy, an issue Larson has long championed. The state is home to several companies that produce this clean power alternative, which means that if the technology ever fully matures, thousands of good paying manufacturing jobs are in the offing (not to mention our liberation from a dependence on foreign oil).That’s still a big if, and policy makers today heard different opinions on how they can more quickly make the fuel cell dream a reality.

Companies like United Technologies and FuelCell Energy in Danbury already manufacture a commercial unit that can power schools and factories. Because their product creates electricity through a chemical reaction extracting hydrogen from natural gas- and not by burning the fossil fuel- it runs quiet and doesn’t emit harmful pollutants. And because it operates apart from the state’s power grid, it is much more reliable- it can’t be shut down by a thunderstorm (or by a terrorist attack on the grid).The problem is efficiency and cost. Fuel cells are still too expensive to be competitive with other sources of electricity, like coal or gas fired power plants. That’s where government can help, company executives said today. By providing incentives to businesses to make it cheaper to buy fuel cells, they theorized, orders will come in and production levels will rise, creating economies of scale and bringing down the cost. Then more and more businesses will be able to afford to buy them, and Connecticut’s economy is off to the races.Federal energy policy should provide more tax incentives for businesses to buy fuel cells, Larson said, and government should use its leverage as a consumer to purchase fuel cells for post offices, federal buildings, vehicles and buses. UTC and FuelCell Energy’s products still depend on natural gas for their hydrogen. But some Connecticut companies, like Distributed Energy Systems (formerly Proton) in Wallingford, have developed new supply systems to produce ultra-high purity hydrogen through electrolysis. A fuel cell powered by renewable sources is the ultimate technological dream.Because of American oil dependence and its effects on our environmental and foreign policy, Larson said government cannot wait for the marketplace to work its magic. The transition from a petro-economy to a hydro-economy should be given the same priority as an Apollo space mission, he said.“I dare say the technological requirements of placing a man on the moon are far greater than the transmission and storage of hydrogen in order to make it the energy source of the future,” Larson said. “What it’s lacked is the political will.“But due to the power of entrenched interests like the oil industry, government will ultimately have to go beyond tax incentives if it is serious about developing fuel cells, argued Chip Schroeder, Distributed Energy’s president. California passed strict mandates on the auto industry in the 1980’s to develop a zero emission car, or else lose the right to sell cars in state. Detroit took it seriously, Schroeder said, adding that most of the work around the country on fuel cells sprang from that single legislative event.“The two markets we’ve been talking about trying to disrupt are the automobile industry, which is an incredibly well entrenched industry, and the utility industry, perhaps even better entrenched and larger,” Schroeder said. “I think anything much short of mandates on industry to bring this along will produce much slower progress than the people around this room would like to see.” Policy makers should mandate that if oil companies want to continue to sell gas in the state, they need to work towards making hydrogen available at fueling stations, Schroeder said.State legislators also spoke of the need for action. State Rep. Terry Backer (D-Stratford) agreed that policy makers should not be distracted by protest from those industries that stand to lose.“We cannot be held back by the wagon wheel makers of the world,” Backer said.Senate President Donald Williams (D-Danielson), who convened the meeting, said his caucus would present legislative proposals concerning fuel cells in the next two weeks.