Is it a gamble or is it visionary? Actually, it's both - but just what is the risk?
We're referring to the Aiken County Council's unanimous vote to put a $9.2 million bet on helping make the region a hub for the development of hydrogen technology. The council will be issuing bonds to raise the money to build a 59,000-square-foot research lab at the Savannah River Research Center.
The center is about a mile from the Savannah River National Laboratory, which has been studying hydrogen for more than half a century. Up to 50 hydrogen scientists and researchers at the National Lab will be moved into the new lab by 2006, says Dr. Paul D. Deason, the lab's deputy director.
The lab, taking up about half the building, will be leased to the Westinghouse Savannah River Co., chief contractor at the Savannah River Site, for $748,000 a year for 10 years.
The county will lease the other half of the research center to private industries or university researchers who want to work with the National Lab.
Why is hydrogen technology considered such a hot prospect to bet on, not only for Aiken County, but the entire state of South Carolina? Because of the studies that have been going on for decades at the National Lab, and a special donation last summer. The National Science Foundation, a prestigious independent government agency, donated a grant of several hundred thousand dollars to the University of South Carolina's hydrogen research center, which has been partnering with the Savannah River Site to develop hydrogen fuel cells.
That grant persuaded nearly a dozen industrial partners to contribute more than a million dollars to the project. The point is, South Carolina and Aiken County already have a lot riding on hydrogen technology which, experts say, could be used to replace gasoline in automobiles and, when fully developed, rid air pollution from energy production and be a new energy source for vehicles and power plants.
Moreover, several carmakers are looking into hydrogen as an auto fuel - no doubt spurred by the recent spike in gas prices - and President Bush has set aside nearly $2 billion to develop hydrogen technology.
If the science in hydrogen continues to blossom, says Fred Humes, of the Economic Development Partnership of Aiken and Edgefield Counties, it could bring up to 40,000 jobs to South Carolina, many of then to the Aiken-Augusta area.
To be sure, this wouldn't happen quickly; it could take 10 years or more. But Aiken County Council's $9.2 million project guarantees if or when it does happen, the CSRA will be a major beneficiary.
Is that worth the gamble? You bet it is.