What Energy Secretary Steven Chu would taketh away from the vehicle fuel cell industry, the U.S. Congress would giveth back.

The 2010 Department of Energy budget being worked out by Congress would restore most of – or even more than – the funding for research into vehicle fuel cells that Chu said in May he would cut from the DOE's budget (see Green Light post).

Hydrogen-powered vehicles were a big part of the Bush Administration's clean energy plans, with $1.2 billion on research over five years. The DOE has $168 million for fuel cell research in its 2009 budget, though some of that is for fuel cells for stationary or portable uses, rather than vehicles.

In justifying his May decision to cut vehicle fuel cell research, Chu said the technology is still decades from delivering on its promises. Fuel cell industry groups like the National Hydrogen Association and the United States Fuel Cell Council, as well as automakers like General Motors that have put lots of money and market research into fuel cell-powered cars weren't happy about the news (see Will GM Abandon Hydrogen Cars?)

It looks as if Congress agrees with those critics. The House of Representatives has included $153 million for hydrogen and fuel cell research in its DOE budget, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $190 million for the program, according to the New York Times' Wheels blog.

The legislation hasn't been passed yet, so things could change. Perhaps Congress has been listening to complaints from U.S. companies that stripping research funding could put the country at a disadvantage compared to foreign competitors.

Toyota recently said that it would aim for a "shockingly low" price for its first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle set to hit the market in 2015 (see AutoBlogGreen). A boost in federal research funding could bolster plans by GM and others to continue development of vehicles that run on hydrogen (see GM Finds New life With eBay Deal).

Creating an infrastructure to provide hydrogen is one major challenge to automakers seeking to bring fuel cell-fired vehicles to market. Only 71 hydrogen fueling stations are operational in the United States and Canada today, according to the National Hydrogen Association's website.

California's "Hydrogen Highway" initiative, launched with great fanfare by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 as a plan to install hydrogen fueling stations throughout the state, has so far led to only 25 stations.

Not only is transporting and storing hydrogen problematic, but most hydrogen today is made from natural gas. Alternative technologies, such as using electricity from renewable sources to turn water into hydrogen via electrolysis, remain too expensive for wide-scale use.

That's led many fuel cell developers to focus on multiple markets (see Intelligent Energy Snags $30M for Fuel Cell Deployment).

Fuel cells also are being developed for military applications and for use in some duty vehicles like forklifts (see Uncle Sam Wants Portable Fuel Cells and Plug Power Puts Fuel Cells in Forklifts). 

Fuel cells for stationary power generation are gaining ground as well (see Fuel Cells as Renewable Power? and Ballard to Deal 10,000 Fuel Cells to India).