The Hydrogen Economy

We are in the early stages of an historic change in the way we organize the earth’s energy. The Industrial Age, which began with the carrying of coal from Newcastle several hundred years ago, is now winding down in the oil fields of the Middle East. Our petro-geologists tell us that global production of oil is likely to peak as early as 2010 or as late as 2037.

Peak refers to the point at which half of the known reserves of cheap crude oil are used up. Once that point is reached, prices will begin to rise dramatically and continue to do so as society moves down the backside of the oil production bell curve. Meanwhile, a whole new energy regime is being readied. Hydrogen — the lightest and most abundant element in the universe — is the next great energy revolution. Scientists call it the “forever fuel” because it never runs out. And when hydrogen is used to produce power, the only byproducts are pure water and heat. Hydrogen has the potential to end the world’s reliance on oil. It will dramatically cut down on carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming. And because hydrogen is so plentiful, people who have never before had access to electricity will be able to generate it. Hydrogen is found everywhere on earth, yet it rarely exists free floating in nature. Instead, it has to be extracted from either hydrocarbons or water. Today, the most cost-effective way to produce commercial hydrogen is to harvest it from natural gas via a steam reforming process. Yet the supply of natural gas is as finite as our oil supply, and therefore not a dependable source. Hydrogen could also be extracted from coal, but that would mean an increase in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Nuclear power could also be used to extract hydrogen, but would generate increasing amounts of radioactive wastes and be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. There is another way to produce hydrogen — one that uses no fossil fuels in the process. Renewable sources of energy — photovoltaic cells, wind, hydro and geothermal — are increasingly being used to produce electricity. That electricity, in turn, can be used in a process called electrolysis, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can also be extracted from energy crops and agricultural waste, so called biomass. Once produced, the hydrogen can be stored and used, when needed, to generate electricity. The important point to emphasize is that a renewable energy society is impossible unless the energy can be stored in the form of hydrogen. That’s because renewable energy is intermittent. The sun isn’t always shining, the wind isn’t always blowing, and water isn’t always flowing when there’s a drought. When renewable energy isn’t available, electricity can’t be generated and economic activity grinds to a halt. But, if some of the electricity being generated, when renewable energy is abundant, can be used to extract hydrogen from water, which can then be stored for later use, society will have a continuous supply of power. Stationary commercial fuel cells powered by hydrogen are just now being introduced for home, office, and industrial use. Portable fuel cell cartridges will be on the market in a few years. Consumers will be able to power up their cell phones, laptops computers, and other appliances for 20 days or more with a single cartridge. The major automakers already have spent over $2 billion developing hydrogen cars, buses, and trucks, and the first mass-produced vehicles are expected to be on the road beginning in 2010. While the costs of harnessing renewable energy and extracting hydrogen are still high, new technological breakthroughs and economies of scale are dramatically reducing these costs every year. Moreover, hydrogen powered fuel cells are 2 times more efficient than the internal combustion engine. Meanwhile, the direct and indirect costs of oil and gas on world markets are going to continue to rise. As we approach the nexus between the falling price of renewables and hydrogen and the rising price of fossil fuels, the old energy regime will steadily give rise to the new energy era. The hydrogen economy will make possible a vast redistribution of power, with far-reaching consequences for society. Today’s centralized, top-down flow of energy, controlled by global oil companies and utilities, could become obsolete. In the new era, every human being with access to renewable energy sources could become a producer as well as a consumer of his or her own energy, using so-called “distributed generation.” Millions of end-users will be able to connect their fuel cells into local, regional, and national hydrogen energy webs, using the same design principles and smart technologies that made possible the World Wide Web. They can then begin to share energy — peer-to-peer — creating a new decentralized form of energy generation and use. In the new hydrogen fuel-cell era, the automobile itself will becomes a “power station on wheels.” The average house requires approximately two to four kilowatts of power for heat and electricity. But each fuel-cell driven car will have a generating capacity of 20 kilowatts. Since cars are parked most of the time, owners can plug them into the home, office or the main interactive electricity network, during nonuse hours, selling the electricity they produce back to the grid. If just 25 percent of drivers used their vehicles as mini-power plants, we could eliminate all the giant, environmentally polluting power plants we now depend on. The harnessing of hydrogen will alter our way of life as fundamentally as the introduction of coal and steam power in the 19th century and the shift to oil and the internal combustion engine in the 20th century. Making the transition to a hydrogen economy represents the single most important challenge and greatest opportunity of the 21st century. About the author — Jeremy Rifkin is the author of “The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth” and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, DC.
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