The Hydrogen Age

This power source could usher in an era of global equity and ecology

| September/October 2002

One of the simple lessons of the past year is that things can and do collapse. Tall buildings and big companies have their hidden weaknesses, and under certain stresses they are apt to crumble. It's troubling to ponder, but entire societies have their limits as well. Pushed beyond them, they will fall.

That warning sounds throughout The Hydrogen Economy (Tarcher/Putnam), a new book by cultural critic Jeremy Rifkin. Though Rifkin's vision of America's energy future is not ultimately pessimistic, it is full of sobering reminders of what could lie ahead. He offers hope that we might end up in a better, more democratic world where energy is cheap and clean, but there are no guarantees. In Rifkin's view, modern society is about to face the kind of crisis that defeated ancient Rome and other civilizations. To survive, we'll not only have to pit the best human impulses against the worst, but also go head to head with the deepest laws of nature.

Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., is one of the leading big-picture thinkers of our day. He and his researchers have compiled a series of trenchant studies on biotechnology, the future of work, the corporate push to own the public commons, and other emerging issues. Rifkin has also helped to define a new niche for the public intellectual as a gatherer of our vast but fragmented reserves of knowledge. His writing focuses less on what he knows than on what the culture knows. At a time when so many people in key places find it hard to 'connect the dots,' Rifkin has turned this critical function into an art.

In The Hydrogen Economy, Rifkin ventures into the field of energetics-the study of energy's role in nature, including human life. We tend to think of society as being shaped by human ideas and personalities, which is partly true. But examined through a longer lens, our cities and cultures can also be seen as expressions of energy, blooming like thunderheads on a summer day, only to fade as they vent their stores of heat.

If every society is an engine built around what it burns, what happens when the fuel runs out? That's the dilemma we now face. Rifkin's basic assumption, shared by many experts, is that the oil age is coming to an end. Given the world's dependence on oil, we're doomed to global upheaval unless we switch to what he believes will be the fuel of the future.

Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, flammable element that abounds throughout the universe, though it's usually locked in a chemical bond with other elements. Unlike oil, coal, and wood, hydrogen contains no carbon and releases only heat and water when it burns. (Its name in Greek means 'water maker.') Being a storable fuel, hydrogen could be the sort of all-purpose 'energy carrier' that a modern mobile society demands. Interest in it is fast approaching critical mass. Along with hydrogen fuel cells running homes and businesses, there's talk of hydrogen-powered vehicles hitting the market in a few years. With the Bush administration now backing a program to develop hydrogen cars-while conveniently dropping support for better gas mileage in regular cars-a hydrogen bubble on Wall Street might not be far behind.

But there is some fine print. For one thing, producing hydrogen energy takes energy; and the electricity used in the process (to split it from other elements) is generated in giant plants that burn fossil fuel. Ideally, we'll find a way to make that electricity with renewable energy, in tiny plants scattered virtually block by block. That's the only way a cleaner, greener vision of a hydrogen economy can be fully realized.

In any case, certain forces will try to control the new hydrogen age. Rifkin thinks that hydrogen could democratize the world by providing it with an energy source as plentiful as water. But at a time when even water is being turned from a public resource into a corporate commodity, there's sure to be a furious effort to do the same with hydrogen. As Rifkin warns, 'Whether hydrogen becomes 'the people's energy' depends to a large extent on how it is harnessed in the early stage of development.' Activists take note: It may be time to pull a few troops off beating back Mickey Mouse and put them on the big H.

Hydrogen dreams are nothing new. In 1874, science fiction writer Jules Verne fantasized in a novel that hydrogen split from its bond with oxygen in water could be a boundless energy source. In 1923, British scientist J.B.S. Haldane drew up a remarkably modern blueprint for a hydrogen economy, with scattered wind farms spinning the current needed to do just what Verne envisioned. (It's now known as 'electrolyzing' hydrogen.) But the hurdles were clearly immense, beginning with cost. Haldane predicted a Britain dotted with his 'metallic windmills' in 400 years.

As Rifkin notes, the phrase 'hydrogen economy' was coined back in the age of the muscle car, in 1970 at General Motors. The 1973 oil crisis sharpened interest in finding something else for cars to drink. Hydrogen has long been used in making many products, including fertilizers, edible oils, and rocket fuel. Rifkin notes that studies show it to be as safe as any other explosive fuel. We'll see.

Today, efforts are under way to further tap hydrogen's potential. In 1999, Iceland vowed to switch almost entirely to hydrogen energy within 20 years. Hawaii hopes to follow. Iceland has lots of hydropower, and Hawaii has tropical sun. Both have geothermal energy in the form of hot volcanic water. In a perfect future, these renewable energy sources would be used to run those pristine hydrogen electrolyzers.

But here's another catch. Except in these places where local factors sweeten the equation, making hydrogen the clean way is now too costly. The cheapest way is to draw it from natural gas with steam in catalytic converters, but that keeps us locked into the dirty carbon loop. Though it burns purely compared to oil or coal, natural gas is still a fossil fuel; it will run out, stoking the global greenhouse effect right up until it does. Many experts say that natural gas will drive the new hydrogen age, at least at first. Others think it's a mistake to invest in a stopgap measure that will slow the switch to a greener regime based on renewable energy.

Before a new hydrogen era can begin, we'll need to create a decentralized network for powering our homes, cars, ballparks, and frozen food aisles. If and when small-scale, localized 'micropower' production catches on, today's huge centralized power plants will lose their economic edge. Instead of buying your electricity from a 1,000-megawatt power plant that runs on coal or nuclear fuel, you might light and heat your home off a fuel-cell unit the size of a refrigerator that silently produces a few dozen kilowatts from hydrogen.

Known as 'distributed generation,' this new energy system will be 'smart,' using computers to link your fuel cells with everyone else's. That is a key step toward what Rifkin sees as a new social as well as technological order. Like other economic revolutions in history, this one will occur 'when new communications technologies fuse with new energy regimes to create a wholly new economic paradigm.' Marry the 'forever fuel' with the microchip and you get what Rifkin and others call the hydrogen energy web.

'The consequences of connecting every owner of a fuel-cell micropower plant with every other owner in an energy-sharing network will be as profound and far-reaching as was the development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s,' he writes. Energy supply and demand can now flow both ways. At night, for instance, the fuel cell in your parked car could be making 20 kilowatts of power for your own use, or for selling back into the energy web. The ability to produce as well as consume power could turn us into a nation of energy traders.

As the energy system changes, so will the society it shapes. Rifkin calls globalization the outgrowth and 'end state' of the fossil fuel era, with a tiny elite now controlling the pump. In his view, the virtual connection of all peoples in the new global village is good, but the one-way flow of political and economic power is harmful. He'd like to see the world use hydrogen to 'reglobalize' itself along different lines. A more lateral energy system could bring a better life to the peoples and regions that the oil age has not enriched-and often brutalizes.

As Rifkin notes, for all the damage done by oil, its benefits have been profound. Hydrogen is the only way that a crowded world can enjoy anything near the comforts (and liberties) that most Americans enjoy largely because of cheap energy. Until then, burning oil to the bitter end will fuel the growing conflict between rich and poor, even as it damages the ultimate energy system, the biosphere we all rely on. Left to fester, both problems can figure in a culture's demise.

'We exhumed the organic remains of an earlier geologic era and basked in a material cornucopia made possible by the energy we took up,' Rifkin writes of the fossil fuel age. Today, the source of our wealth is about to go dry, making us 'more vulnerable to external threat and internal collapse.' As Rifkin notes, the forces that now endanger us range from radical Islam and corporate greed to the natural laws that govern energy flow throughout the universe. Citing thinkers who have studied why and when societies fall, he draws a disturbing parallel between our own case and 'the thermodynamics of Rome.' They ran on crops and we burn oil, but the pattern is similar. In terms of energy, we're spending more to garner less. Meanwhile, a world without much sympathy notes every sign of weakness.

Will we make it? Rifkin, who conservative critics sometimes call a Luddite, reveals himself to be a true child of the Enlightenment in at least one key respect: He's guardedly optimistic that our vast know-how will pull us through. But he's also aware that in a deeper sense we're children of the sun. And there will be the day when it calls us home.

Jeremiah Creedon is a senior editor of Utne Reader.