Thursday, February 12, 2004

Hydrogen Economy?

Well, I had promised Adam a review of The Hydrogen Economy by Jeremy Rifkin.

I had not read anything by Jeremy Rifkin other than a few articles from his book ‘The Biotech Century’. However, the more I read about hydrogen, the more intrigued I am. So, I decided to borrow a copy of his book titled ‘The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth’ from my advisor.

Make no mistake; this is a book I would recommend to anybody who is interested in energy and the politics of energy. The book is well written and is a very easy read. However, if you thought that you were going to learn a lot about realization of the hydrogen dream, then you will come out disappointed. The first seven out of total nine chapters in the book pertain to oil. Rifkin spends a lot of his time explaining the need to start looking for options beyond oil.

One of the most interesting debates in Energy industry is about scarcity of oil. I think that the debate has moved from whether we are running out of oil to when the global oil production is going to peak. Conservative estimates from US DOE/ USGS give us about 35 years before the global oil production will peak and start to decline. Kenneth Deffeyes at Princeton, a colleague of King Hubbert who wrote the seminal piece about estimation of energy resources in science, thinks that we have less than ten years before the peak occurs. There is a whole range of projection in between these. Rifkin agrees more with the pessimists "Whether we are prepared or not, global production of conventional oil is likely to peak sometime between 2010 and 2020."

Rifkin advocates that looking beyond petroleum should be a priority. He borrows the idea from The Collapse of Complex Societies that collapse of a civilization sets in when a mature civilization is forced to spend more and more of its energy reserves to maintain its complex social arrangements while experiencing diminishing returns in energy enjoyed per capita. Rifkin states that advanced industrialized societies have become so much dependent on Oil and Natural Gas that the coming decades of scarcity could be devastating.

There are two other arguments that Rifkin offers. The first is that whether you believe in USGS or Deffeyes, the truth is that in 25 years, everybody in the world will be more dependent on the Middle East Oil as never before. This is relatively uncontrovertial. The increasing dependence on Middle Eastern Oil, coupled with the political games being played by the indutrialized countries (mainly US, Britain and France) and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism makes the situation very explosive. The geopolitical consequences of Right wing Islamic movements taking over governments in the Middle East at the time when Oil will start to become dearer are huge.

Rifkin reminds us that our current agricultural system is dependent on petroleum based products in one way or the other. "More than 17% of all energy used in the US goes to putting food on our tables".

The second argument that Rifkin supports for looking away from Oil is of course Climate Change. I will leave it to that.

So, after having painted an extremely gloomy picture of the shape of things to come, the book offers hope in the last two chapters. (The answer is Hydrogen. But what is the question? -- David Marks). We have progressively shifted from fuel sources with high carbon-hydrogen ratio to the once with lower C-H ratio: Wood to Coal to Oil to Gas. So, the next obvious step seems to take Carbon out of the picture. This is easier to say than to do, and Rifkin agrees. I have started to ask this question: So, what color is your Hydrogen? If the hydrogen is going to come from oil or natural gas or coal, then it is obviously black! The hydrogen advocated by the likes of Rifkin and Amory Lovins is Green! It comes from renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, this fact does not come out as strongly in the book as Rifkin talks about the "Forever Fuel".

Regardless, Rifkin projects a picture of a Hydrogen Economy (apperently the term was coined by General Motors) where the power of fuel cells and distributed generation is unleashed. The fuel cell cars could become a source of power when stationary, and so on. The notion that availability of energy locally and independence from Grid will empower the local communities is interesting. To make this happen, Rifkin says, that it will be essential to treat the hydrogen as a commons and "democratize energy". Community Development Corporations could play a big role in this operation.

So, the book concludes with a message that the future of hydrogen is big. It remains relatively unclear on whether this would happen quickly and how. Even then, I think that it is a reading worth your time. Rifkin makes a pursuasive, if not compelling, case for move away from Oil and towards Hydrogen. The reality is this: We are now within striking distance of being able to make Oil from unconventional sources such as Tar sands. The environmental impacts of doing so will be worse than the conventional oil. Biofuels may prove useful, but may also take up too much land area and may affect biodiversity. Renewables are not very competitive, so much that Exxon clearly ruled out significant investments in renewables. I found John Holdren address on Environmental Change and human Conditions most enlightening. I don't think we know the answers, but I think that takes care of the employment problems for at least some of us.

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