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The Hydrogen Future

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
01.23.2003 | BOOKS

First, the bad news.

The world's gas tank is almost half empty. According to the latest computer models, global crude oil production will peak between 2010 and 2030. Deposits found in non-OPEC countries following the oil shocks of the 1970s are dwindling fast. Ninety per cent of all recoverable oil reserves have been located. A 50% spike in global energy demand by 2020 will lead to fierce competition for what's left. Some experts predict that oil production could fail to meet world demand as early as 2010. The 21st century will see the oil bell curve drop as fast as it rose during the 20th.

The collision between surging demand and falling production will hit hardest in the Middle East, where the majority of untapped deposits remain. Saudi Arabia still has 70 percent of its oil in the ground (Russia, by contrast, has 39 percent) while Iraq leads the world with a reserve-to-production ratio of an astounding 526 to 1. Power is set to swing back hard to the OPEC countries, and it will stay there during the last gasps of the Oil Age. Because non-OPEC sources have been largely depleted, we are nearing a period of "permanent oil shock" in which the oil market will be dominated by the Gulf states.

That oil is a finite resource concentrated in an unstable part of the world has long constituted a case for finding another way to power the global economy. But in The Hydrogen Economy, noted critic and futurist Jeremy Rifkin adds depth and urgency to this argument. By integrating surveys of other oil-related threats—accelerating climate change, radical Islam and the technical vulnerabilities of our centralized energy grid—he has drawn a sophisticated three-dimensional picture of a looming world crisis and breakdown.

Ours is the most energy-intensive civilization in history, and every aspect of modern society—from food production to the information economy—is dependent upon a constant, pulsing flow of energy through its veins. The transition to the next energy paradigm must therefore be seamless to avoid meltdown, and the hard work has to begin now. Even if the world's oil was all located in Canada and global warming wasn't happening, we'd still be running out.

According to Rifkin, who runs the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends and is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Management, we still have two choices, although time is fast running out.

The first choice is to dig our heads and oil drills deeper into the ground. We can continue searching for tiny and hard to recover oil deposits around the world, supplementing the last few drops with dirtier carbon fuels like coal and heavy oil extracted from tar sand. This is a short-term solution that would push the atmosphere to breaking point and fry the planet. Backed by an army of statistics, Rifkin calls this path foolish and suicidal.

The sane alternative is hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. It is everywhere. Unlike oil, it is not geographically concentrated, and therefore unlikely to precipitate power struggles and violence. Hydrogen has been dubbed "the forever fuel," and harnessing it, Rifkin writes, "would provide humanity with a [clean] virtually unlimited source of energy—the kind of energy elixir that has long eluded alchemists and chemists alike."

Hydrogen has been used as a commercial fuel since the 1920s, and the Soviets produced the first liquid hydrogen-powered airplane in the '70s. Thanks to rapid advances in fuel cell technology, Rifkin thinks a hydrogen-based energy grid could be put in place in time to prevent a global meltdown during the fast approaching end of the Oil Age.

In the long view, history is on hydrogen's side. The story of human-harnessed energy is also the story of "de-carbonization"—the gradual reduction of the amount of carbon we use in our fuel of choice. Since the industrial revolution, we have moved from first burning wood, and then on to coal, and then oil and now to a lesser extent natural gas. As we have done so, the level of destruction we have visited on our environment has slowed (satanic clouds of soot no longer hang over New York, as they did in the coal age) and this can be explained by the increasing ratio of hydrogen to carbon in the fuels we use. There is only one molecule of hydrogen for every ten molecules of carbon in wood. There is one for every two in coal, and in oil the ratio inverts, with two hydrogens for every coal. In natural gas it there are four hydrogen molecules for every molecule of carbon. Our fuels become cleaner, in other words, as they grow higher in hydrogen content. So pure hydrogen is, logically, the cleanest alternative.

Rifkin describes a future Hydrogen Energy Web that is de-centered and democratic. Mini-power plants and on-site residential and commercial generators would provide energy close to the source and feed excess hydrogen back into the larger grid, much the way computers exist and share within a network. Turning idle hydrogen powered cars into power plants, for example, merely requires the proper infrastructure. Rifkin quotes one study that shows a fuel-cell transportation fleet of 200 million vehicles would have four times the current generating capacity as every power station in the U.S.

The problem is that hydrogen doesn't occur naturally in usable form. It must be extracted from water by electrolysis, a process that requires electricity, and electricity today requires...fossil fuels. Thus liberation from carbon is dependent upon carbon, and that is hydrogen's dilemma.  The challenge is thus to lower the cost of carbon-free and renewable energy forms so that they can be used to generate the electricity needed to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Rifkin cites numerous corporate and governmental initiatives around the world trying to make this happen. A consortium in Iceland last year announced a goal to run the entire Icelandic economy on geothermal and hydrogen power within 20 years, and then become the first hydrogen exporting nation in the world. Harnessing Iceland's tremendous geothermal (volcanic) and water-power would create a completely clean energy system: water is used to create electricity, which in turn extracts hydrogen. The hydrogen is then used as fuel, and its only emission is water. A similar initiative is under way in the U.S. state of Hawaii, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. Elsewhere in America, the governor of Michigan last year said the state would begin working with the utility industry to build hydrogen micro-grids. In his announcement of the initiative, he speculated that the hydrogen economy would grow to $100 billion by 2010, and would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Once the center of the combustible engine universe, Detroit may soon emerge as a global center of the hydrogen era.

Rifkin stresses that such initiatives must be duplicated and accelerated around the world. The task of replacing a soon-to-be obsolete energy infrastructure is so massive and complex that switching tracks can't wait until the last drop of oil is gone.

Rifkin devotes a full chapter to the relationship between energy and the fall of civilizations. "Collapse sets in," he writes, "when a mature civilization reaches the point at which it is forced to spend more and more of its energy reserves simply maintaining its complex social arrangements while experiencing diminishing returns."

As we enter the rapid downslide of the Oil Age, the perils of absentmindedly riding the status quo loom large—from scarce resources to the heating of the earth to the hornet's nest of Middle East oil politics. Jeremy Rifkin has arranged a learned and powerful case for pushing forward bravely into the hydrogen future, and citizens should provide echo to that case whenever possible. "Hydrogen is a promissory note for humanity's future on Earth," writes the author. He's right, and the bank closes in less than an hour.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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