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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europe, U.S. Start Joint Exploration of Fuel Cells

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union and the United States on Monday agreed to pool their research efforts into hydrogen fuel cells, despite their widely differing views on what the technology will mean for energy policy.

While the European Union views the fuel cell as a way to harness renewable power sources like solar or wind energy, the United States is focusing on ways to use it along with fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

"This agreement lays out the framework for our two entities to collaborate on a matter important to both the U.S. and the European Union: hydrogen research," said the U.S. secretary of energy, Spencer Abraham, at a meeting on Monday with his European counterparts in Brussels.

Abraham said other countries would be invited to join the effort agreement later. "The United States is looking forward to working together on a broad international basis, including countries such as Japan," he said.

But critics said the European Union was allowing its plans for hydrogen to be hijacked by the fossil-fuel-friendly Bush administration.

Eight months ago, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, the union's executive body, laid out a vision for Europe's energy future once hydrogen had been harnessed as a practical energy source through the use of fuel cells. Central to that vision was a reversing of the electricity grid, with many homes and businesses producing more energy than they use and piping the surplus through the grid to be sold elsewhere. But that component was not evident in the agreement on Monday.

"It's a glaring omission from the European plan," said Jeremy Rifkin, author of a book called "The Hydrogen Economy" and an adviser to Prodi. Still, he said, Europe's approach to hydrogen is more enlightened than the approach being pursued by the Bush administration.

Although the United States is spending far more on hydrogen research than Europe, Rifkin and others say that much of the money is being channeled to producers of fossil and nuclear energy. For example, the Department of Energy plans to spend $1 billion over 10 years on a project to extract hydrogen from coal.

The European commissioner for energy, Loyola de Palacio, denied that the union's vision for a hydrogen-powered economy had been co-opted. "We can cooperate in the interests of the whole world," de Palacio said.

Last year, Prodi set goals for the union to obtain 22 percent of its electricity and 12 percent of all its energy from renewable sources by 2010. Unless it does so, he said, the union will not be able to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement calling for sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

The United States never signed the Kyoto Protocol. But Abraham said that it, too, is pursuing cleaner energy. Half of the United States' $1.7 billion budget for hydrogen research will be spent on renewable energy projects, he said.