The European Commission finally is launching its long-planned €1 billion ($1.3 billion) joint funding program for fuel-cell and hydrogen-technology development, but is receiving criticism from this growing auto industry niche in the process.

Called the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative (JTI), The EC’s goal is to coordinate European auto makers, parts manufacturers, energy firms, institutions and governments in commercializing hydrogen fuel-cell technologies starting sometime between 2010 and 2020.

The JTI is expected to result in a joint research program more tailored to the auto industry’s needs, reducing by two to five years estimates for mass production of hydrogen and fuel-cell technology. Having an adequate budget over six years will raise confidence among public and private investors, allowing them to plan and develop long term, the EC says.

It also will strengthen links between demonstration projects and fundamental or applied-research projects, speeding up the pace of learning and of gaining experience.

The program was expected to be supported with liberal amounts of government cash. But according to the European fuel-cell and hydrogen association, FuelCellEurope, that does not appear to be the case.

Association President Marcus Nurdin says the EC only intends to provide €470 million ($625 million) of the budget, with the remainder to come from outside sources. Crucially, he says, the much-heralded €1 billion is far from what is needed to make Europe the world leader in hydrogen fuel-cell technologies.

“From an industry perspective, we welcome this initiative,” says Nurdin. “However, as we have explained regularly over the past two years, we don’t think the European Commission’s commitment is matching the expectations and the magnitude of the opportunity offered by fuel-cell and hydrogen technologies to address energy security and climate-change issues.”

FuelCellEurope – which represents fuel-cell equipment manufacturers, users, energy companies and auto makers – also is unhappy with how the program will be conducted. The initial aim, the association claims, was for it to be an industry-run program with minimal red tape.

“None of this is being achieved with the current EC proposal and attitude, and industry is being asked to take a substantial financial burden to run the program office and administrative costs without getting anything concrete in return,” the association says in a critical note.

EU Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik was considerably more enthusiastic during the project’s formal launch at a 'Stakeholders General Assembly,” staged in Brussels last week.

“This brings together the most significant players to put Europe ahead of the game in new energy technologies,” he said at the time. “It provides us with the unique opportunity to implement our plans on a large European scale.

“To prepare the market for these strategic technologies, it is not only needed for the relevant industrial sectors to develop the supply chain but (also) to ensure cooperation between research, industry and government, at the regional, national and European level.”

The EC says the fuel-cell project will be led by a governing board, with daily management and operations handled by an executive director with support from a program office in Brussels.

A scientific committee will advise the board, as will a national government “states representatives group” and the annual general assembly. Government money will be drawn from the EU’s seventh framework programs, which funds the bulk of EC research initiatives.

The EC already has released its first call for research proposals with €28.1 million ($37.4 million) being made available in the first tranche of funding.

Of this, €8.9 million ($11.8 million) is earmarked for transport and refueling infrastructure research, including vehicle-demonstration projects, fuel-cell stacks and compressed-hydrogen onboard storage.

The deadline for submitting proposals for the funding is Jan. 15, 2009, and auto industry companies are expected to apply.