With energy prices high and the federal government funding alternative fuel research, Maryland took delivery Wednesday on the state's first hydrogen-fueled car.

The state hopes the bright blue HydroGen3 minivan (search), manufactured by and leased from General Motors (search), will help it attract some of those federal dollars. The car will be evaluated over the next year for its success in reducing reliance on conventional fuels.

The van likely will be used by the Maryland Department of Human Resources in Prince George's County, said Michael T. Richard, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

A GM engineer will accompany the vehicle's driver during the one-year operation.

GM electrical engineer Bryan Essig took Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich for a spin in the state's new ride.

"Maryland better get used to this. This is the future," Ehrlich said.

The vehicle is not available to the public, and Maryland's lease is part of its testing process, GM said. Neither GM nor state representatives could say what the cost of the yearlong lease will be.

The announcement comes at a time when gas prices have reached an all-time high and remain elevated. The state has also seen an increase in consumer purchase of hybrid cars in the last year.

Using a hybrid car also has something to do with President Bush's $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (search). The state is looking to position itself to benefit from the expected job growth and economic opportunities spawned by the president's initiative, said Maryland Energy Administration Chief of Staff Michael Li.

"As a state, we look at short-term solutions to transportation obstacles," Li said. "This is an immediate short-term solution to reduce petroleum consumption."

Gas prices stood at an average of $1.85 in Maryland as of Tuesday, up from $1.68 a year ago, AAA spokeswoman Amanda Knittle said. Prices peaked June 3 at $2.05.

Prince George's County was chosen to host the car because it will have to be refueled daily and the only refueling station is in Ft. Belvoir in Northern Virginia.

Although the vehicle is the first of its kind to be used by a Maryland state agency, energy-efficient cars are nothing new to the state.

The state uses 120 compressed natural gas vehicles in its fleet, said Tim Shepherd, from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Richard said he uses an ethanol-fueled vehicle for his MEA job.

Consumers, too, are buying into alternative fuel vehicles. As of Tuesday, 3,987 hybrid cars were registered by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. And, from June 30, 2003, to June 30, 2004, hybrid registrations increased by 716, spokesman Jeff Tosi said.

This car is a step above hybrid cars, but hybrids will serve as a bridge to get to hydrogen vehicles, GM Vice President of Government Relations Ken Cole said.

Some of the state's environmental activists are supportive of the state's willingness to try out the novel car.

"We support any effort the state may have" to bring more clean cars to the state, MaryPIRG field organizer Chris Fick said. "Our No. 1 priority this winter is to get the Clean Cars Act (search) (passed), so we hope they find hybrid vehicles are extremely efficient and good for the environment."

The act would raise automobile emissions standards.

The GM engineer is being assigned to the operation to make sure there are no problems for the driver. The HydroGen3 looks like any normal car, but operates differently under the hood. Oxygen in regular air and hydrogen are mixed within a stack of fuel cells. The reaction between the elements creates electricity, which powers the car. Water is the only waste product the engine produces.

GM leased a similar vehicle to Washington, D.C., where it was used to look for dead trees, and FedEx used the vehicle in Japan.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.