Book Review

The Hydrogen Economy

THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth
by Jeremy Rifkin


Publisher: J. P. Tarcher; (September 12, 2002)
ISBN: 1585421936
Hardcover: 336 pages
Dimensions (in inches): 1.03 x 9.34 x 6.30


by Philip S. Wenz, Editor/Publisher

Mr. Rifkin, as usual, is way ahead of his field. While most people, especially, it seems, most Americans, are only now becoming aware of the existence of hydrogen fuel cells (HFCs) and the possibilities for a hydrogen energy regime, Rifkin has already written a bold and imaginative look into the future that goes well beyond mere technical innovation. By connecting a great many dots, he had drawn a picture of planetary hope heretofore unseen.

Rifkin's basic idea, that energy production can be democratized and that energy itself can, therefore, be virtually free and universally available, rests on four facts: 1) hydrogen is ubiquitious and plentiful, 2) the technology and equipment to extract hydrogen is diverse, scalable and affordable, 3) modern HFCs are sufficiently powerful for transportation, industrial and ordinary building use, and can be scaled to match their purpose, and 4) the development of the internet has taught us enough about the functioning of distributed networks and given us enough computer power to enable us to design a distributed energy network that will easily meet our energy needs.

Having developed those ideas, Rifkin goes on to make practical proposals for employing existing grass-roots organizations such as Community Development Corporations as Distributed (energy) Generating Associations that will take on the task of building the hydrogen economy from the "bottom up." His book is nothing less than a proposal—practical, to my mind—to put the world's energy, and, therefore, the world's economic infrastructure on a sustainable footing.

If this seems like a lot of information and ideas, it is. And, whether it was the author's intention of not, The Hydrogen Economy, fails, in my opinion, to provide its readers with enough technical information about hydrogen as a fuel, fuel cells and related developments for them to fully understand the book's radical and brilliant economic proposals. To overcome this weakness—and because Mr. Rifkin's democratization of energy idea must be studied and understood as one of the most important developments in ecological design since the groundbreaking work of such giants as Buckminister Fuller and Ian McHarg—ECOTECTURE has published the hydrogen overview article, Hydrogen: Fuel of the (near) Future, concurrent with this book review. The background information found there is intended to fill any gaps encountered in the following discussion or Mr. Rifkin's important book.

Mr. Rifkin's is an economist, and his choice, if it was a conscious choice, to advance a technical-lite, econonics-heavy argument likely had as much to do with his own sense of urgency in building an apporpriate foundation for a democratic hydrogen economy than it did with an assumption that his readers really understood hydrogen energy. He does provide background, lots of it, in several chapters leading up to his regretably short discussion of the hydrogen economy proper. That background is in the historic economics of energy, and deals with subjects ranging from entropy as a condition of civilization to Middle Eastern politics. The discussion takes up seven of the book's nine chapters, and is a good read, informative and illuminating in and of itself. It is possibly necessary for some readers, at least, to finally get it through their heads that our addict-like dependence on fossil fuels is bad idea.

But again, that discussion comes to some extent at the expense of fuller development of Mr. Rifkin's hydrogen economy ideas, discussed in just two chapters. The good news, however, is that in that brief space Mr. Rifkin manages to plant some very robust seeds which, given time and the attention of the ecological design community as a whole, could grow into a magnificent garden, an Eden revisited. The basic thread, outlined above, is as follows:

The old energy order is collapsing. Not only are we running out of fossil fuels, we are also learning that centralized, monopolistic energy production of any type is economically and politically problematic, to say the least. Current demand-supply studies show us running out of readily extractable oil within two-to-four decades.

Hydrogen differs from fossil fuels in that is it available everywhere, thus, potentially, to everyone, and in virtually unlimited quantities—the supply is never depleted because the hydrogen is rejoined with the substance from which it is extracted, water. Until recently, two factors (other than the underlying factor of political will) have kept us from converting to hydrogen as our primary fuel source—the lack of an economical means of extracting hydrogen from the environment and the lack of an efficient hydrogen-fuel power generator.

The technical solutions for the first factor are already in place, as hydrogen is best produced by electrolysis, or passing an electric current through water and splitting it up into its component hydrogen and oxygen ions. Using power from our current, centralized plants, however, is expensive so smaller, more diverse and widely distributed renewable energy generating facilities must be built. Such plants are relatively inexpensive, so developing countries and smaller organizations within industrialized countries can build them. The electrical grid must also be rebuilt to some extent, because it is, by nature, a branching (hierarchical) as opposed to a distributed (cross connected) network.

The second factor, lack of an efficient hydrogen engine, or generator, has been solved by the recent development of the HFC. Achieving efficiencies of 60 to 80 percent in releasing electricity while combining hydrogen gas with atmospheric oxygen to create water, the new HFC's can power cars and boats, and easily operate buildings. HFCs can be scaled to almost application, so they can work as power plants for houses and hospitals, toy cars and real trains.

HFCs, then, have the potential to be placed everywhere, generating electricity for all manner of applications. The beauty of that—and this is the nexus of Mr. Rifkin's distributed network argument—is that the HFCs are not limited to producing energy when the particular machine or building they are powering is in operation. The generators can be plugged into the grid and produce power when it is not needed for their designated application. An HFC car, for example, could be driven to work and parked (most cars spend 95% of their time parked), plugged into a hydrogen fueling hose and the electrical grid simultaneously, and generate peak- hour power demanded by offices and industry while it's driver is at work. Where does the hydroden fuel come from? An appropriately scaled electrolysis extracting plant at the office building where the car is parked, augmented, possibly, by an on-board extractor. Photovoltaic car roofs already exist. Why not have them produce hydrogen instead of charging batteries as they do in today's experimental cars. That hydrogen, in turn, can produce electricity both to run the car and run the country. Everybody's an electrical supplier. Everybody owns one, or two or three electrical generators.

If such scenarios seem like science fiction, remember that so did heavier- than-air flight a century ago. Some individuals are already producing electricity with home-built renewable plants (photovoltaic, wind, etc.) to run their own homes and selling the excess current back to the grid during peak hours. A federal law requiring local electric companies to buy that power was passed decades ago.

A technical problem facing the development of the distributed energy system is delivering the right amount of energy to the right place at the right time. The rudiments of the solution have been worked out, however, and the model is provided by the internet. Just as the internet, as a whole, is a series of smaller sub-networks and individual terminals linked together, the distributed energy network would be a series of local networks, each computer regulated to deliver the power where and when it is needed. Much of the computer infrastructure and technology needed to operate such a network is already in place, or well within our grasp.

The next big problem Mr. Rifkin tackles is getting from here to there. While these are all good ideas, who will actually implement them? Consistent with his distributed, as opposed to a centralized production model, he suggests that the sub-networks will be created by cooperatives and similar organizations, many of which already exist. Just as the internet began as a series of local area networks linking computers within universities and businesses, the energy network could be built with relatively low capital investments by neighborhood development corporations, college campuses, industrial parks and even individuals.

This scenario is particularly appealing for the developing world, which needs energy but often can't capitalize it, at least not without getting further into debt to the developed nations. (Massive hydroelectric projects, generally financed by the developed countries, typically plunge developing countries into decades of indebtedness.) Selective financing of locally owned and operated, low-cost power plants—based on HFCs or other hydrogen generation systems, depending on the availability and cost of the units—to run villages, farm coops and manufactuing facilities is well within the reach of many developing countries. As the local networks are developed, they can be connected in a process that reverses the centralized, top-down, branching networks that characterized the first great surge of power development in the 1920s and 30s.

The Hydrogen Economy offers an exciting glimpse into the immediate future, and a program for making sure that that future is truly egalatarian. Though changing our energy regime only addresses part of the problem of building a sustainable global economy, the directions of change—the development of distributed, appropriately scaled, locally owned empowerment modules—is equally applicable to a variety of solutions including organic farms, co-housing and biodiversity stewardship coops. As the ecological design movement seeks to define its mission, it would do well to align its general objectives with those outlined by Mr. Rifkin. We can begin by reading his book.


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