Hydrogen revolution
The next great European project

In an interview with RTD Info magazine, Jeremy Rifkin presents his vision for a hydrogen economy and third industrial revolution. Rifkin believes that mitigating the effects of global warming whilst weaning Europe from its dependency on fossil fuels are the two greatest challenges facing the EU over the next 50 years. His vision entails the generation of power using renewable technologies that are stored, distributed and shared in the form of hydrogen. This new ‘hydrogen energy regime’ will impact geopolitics, the wealth of nations and society at large. Rifkin believes that creating a hydrogen economy and unleashing the third industrial revolution should be the next big European integration project, and explains why this should be the focus of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and other research programmes.

Jeremy Rifkin Jeremy Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, a thinktank, based in Washington, DC. He is the author of seventeen books on the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society, and the environment. Two of his most recent books are The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream and The Hydrogen Economy.
The Hydrogen Economy? Searching… Here, production of hydrogen electrocatalysed by compounds of cobalt. The objective of this research is to identify new molecular catalysts for producing hydrogen from electricity or solar energy. Work conducted by the laboratory UMR5047 of the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research, in France). Close-up: an electrolysed cell with the working electrode in carbon and the reference electrode. The Hydrogen Economy? Searching… Here, production of hydrogen electrocatalysed by compounds of cobalt. The objective of this research is to identify new molecular catalysts for producing hydrogen from electricity or solar energy. Work conducted by the laboratory UMR5047 of the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research, in France). Close-up: an electrolysed cell with the working electrode in carbon and the reference electrode.
© CNRS Photothèque/Emmanuel Perrin
Close-up of a catalytic hydrogen production process on a structured reactor: general structure of the monolith (honeycomb-like brace covered up by the catalytic layer) Work of the research institute for catalysis, Villeurbanne – CNRS (FR). Close-up of a catalytic hydrogen production process on a structured reactor: general structure of the monolith (honeycomb-like brace covered up by the catalytic layer) Work of the research institute for catalysis, Villeurbanne – CNRS (FR).
© CNRS Photothèque/Laurent Villegas

What do you think should be the priorities for FP7 research?

We are at a critical point in world history. We’re now facing the greatest challenge that we’ve ever faced as a species, and that is climate change. The bottom line is this: the scientific community is now over 90% certain that human-induced climate change is dramatically affecting the earth, and the projected scenarios are foreboding. Current models put us back to the temperature on this planet of 3 billion years ago during the Pleioscene Era. Different flora, different fauna, different earth. I don’t think we grasp the enormity of this change in climate, and the impact it will have on ecosystems, on living patterns and on the ability of our species to adjust.

We’re at a shifting point, not only because of climate change, but because we’re now beginning to see the sunset of the fossil fuel and uranium era. Experts agree that sometime within the next 30 years half the oil will be used up. That’s when the era is over because the prices of oil become unaffordable.

In addition, we have increasing political instability in the oil producing countries, especially in the Persian Gulf. This makes the whole question of energy, of oil flow, problematic – week-to-week and even day-to-day.

Given the fact that we’re moving toward peak energy production of oil, and we’re experiencing real-time climate change of a magnitude that’s beyond the scale of human history, I would suggest that the primary mission of civilization in the next 25 to 50 years ought to be an exit strategy from carbon-based fuels and uranium, and the laying down of a new infrastructure for a post-carbon era. This is about survival now, of the planet as we know it, and of civilization as we know it. This is nothing less than that. So, any other research priorities on technological development have to either augment that in some way or are secondary.

How do you see us exiting from carbon-based fuels and uranium, and what would a new infrastructure in a post-carbon era look like?

Let me back up and say that the point I made in The Hydrogen Economy is that the great economic revolutions in human history occur when two things happen. One, when human beings change their energy regime, the way we organise the energy of the planet and two, when we change our communications regimes to organise our new energy regimes. The pivotal points in human history are when new energy regimes and new communications regimes converge. They change the human equation forever.

The reason I say this is that we’ve had a very powerful communications revolution over the last 15 years with the personal computer, the Internet, satellite and WiFi communication. Now at least 20% of the human race can produce and share information at the speed of light. It’s an unprecedented, flat, open-source, distributed communications revolution. What I’m suggesting to the government leaders and Fortune 500 companies that I advise is that this communications revolution has a deeper mission, a chapter two. It’s the command and control mechanism for a new energy regime and a third industrial revolution, a shift to hydrogen in a postcarbon energy era.

How would this work?

Here’s the way the distributed communications revolution becomes the command and control mechanism for an energy era. Imagine millions and millions of hydrogen fuel cells in 25 to 30 years time. There are portable fuel cell cartridges that you can use to power your laptop, your cell phone, your MP3 player. They’ll be out on the market this year from seven Japanese companies. And there are also stationary fuel cells. Every home, every office, every industrial park, every industrial region has fuel cells powered by hydrogen, which stores renewable energy.

What we do is use solar, geothermal, hydro and waves to generate electricity. Then we use some of the surplus renewable energy to electrolyse water and grab hydrogen for storage, for the grid, and for transport. With biomass – forestry waste, agricultural waste, municipal garbage and the like – we can get the hydrogen direct.

This is where I think we need to go with our R&D. It’s still going to be challenging; it’s not a magic bullet. But it’s the only way to get us off the old fuels.

Why hydrogen?

Many people have asked, “Why do you need hydrogen? Why not just renewable energy?” You can’t do one without the other because renewable energy is intermittent, with the exception of biomass. The sun isn’t always shining, the wind isn’t always blowing. Water tables can be down for hydro. Hydrogen is a way to store renewable energy so it’s there and predictable for the power grid and for transport. With biomass, you can get the hydrogen directly, but you still need a universal carrier, which is hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the stuff of the universe, and when you use it the only by-products are pure water and heat. It takes us off the carbon cycle, which is essential to deal with climate change.

Aren’t there alternatives to renewable energy?

You can take hydrogen out of coal, oil or natural gas. The problem is you’re still in fossil fuels. Natural gas is an OK transition because it burns a little better than oil, but it doesn’t give you more than a few years because natural gas follows the same bell curve in terms of global peak production as oil. You can use coal. The coal industry is saying: “Clean coal. Let’s develop a whole new generation of coal-fired power plants, and give us enough time and money and we’ll figure out a way to sequester the CO2 and store it underground or under the ocean.” The problem is that other scientists are saying that there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest that it would be economically feasible, if at all, until mid-2020 or mid-2030. And it wouldn’t make a significant contribution to CO2 reduction until almost the mid-century according to the IEA. And then we still don’t know if you can maintain the CO2 under the ground or under the oceans with no leakage forever.

The nuclear industry says: “Why don’t we get hydrogen by electrolysing water with nuclear power?” The problem there again is cost. Nuclear power plants are prohibitively expensive compared to other forms of energy for electricity. Moreover, we’re facing uranium deficits by 2025 to 2035 according to the International Atomic Energy Commission. Why would we want to build nuclear power plants at the cost of several trillion dollars just to run into a uranium deficit? Besides, we’re 60 years into this technology, yet we still don’t know how to transport and store nuclear waste. Finally, in an era of terrorism, why would we want hundreds or even thousands of nuclear power plants all over the world? It’s what I would call a ‘nightmare scenario’.

And finally, these old technologies, fossil fuels and uranium, are what I would call elite technologies. They’re highly centralized 19th and 20th century approaches to energy. Coal, oil, gas and uranium are only found in certain regions, in certain pockets. They’re not evenly distributed across the planet. So they require a huge military investment to secure them and a huge capital investment to process them. So we end up with a world where power is unevenly distributed.

How does this tie in with the communications revolution?

We’re going to use the exact same architecture, the exact same software and hardware that we created in Silicon Valley. We’re going to use that technology to reconfigure the power grid of the EU and the whole world, in 20 years, so that the power grids are smart, distributed, and open source.

Now, here’s the interesting nexus between the communications and energy revolutions. A fuel cell powered by hydrogen which stores renewable energy is analogous to a personal computer. When you get a personal computer, you generate your own information. But then you can also disseminate it as a producer to a billion people in three seconds. Try to imagine millions of fuel cells in 30 years from now, and remember we went from almost no computers 30 years ago to millions. There’s no reason why we can’t do that with hydrogen fuel cells as well.

So it’s like your own personal energy source?

Exactly. You and I capture renewable energy locally. We generate electricity with it. Use it. Store some of the surplus in the form of hydrogen for later conversion back to electricity, or for direct use in transport. We send the rest of the surplus back to the power grid or share it. We can share energy with the same ease and transparency as we share information on the Internet. Each of us becomes our own utility.

What would be the impact of a change like this?

The coming together of the distributed communications revolution as the command and control for the distributed generation of energy – hydrogen-storing renewable energy - is the third industrial revolution. And it should have as powerful an impact on the 21st century as coal, steam and rail coming together with print in the 19th century, and oil, the internal combustion engine and automobiles coming together with electricity, the telegraph and the telephone in the 20th century. The multiplier effect should be at least a century. It will create millions of jobs, and it will bring us to the kind of sustainable post-carbon, post-uranium energy regime that is distributed, decentralised, and gives power to the people.

The hydrogen economy and the third industrial revolution sound like a grand vision for Europe rather than just research priorities…

I think for Europe that it’s the key to the next stage of European integration. The European Union started with energy, the Coal & Steel Community and then the Euratom.

What I’ve said to José Manuel Barroso, Andris Piebalgs, Nellie Kroes, Angela Merkel and others is: “Look, this is an opportunity to create a new integrated program for the next grand project for Europe.”

The way to reach the Lisbon Agenda is by creating a seamless infrastructure: an integrated transportation grid, communication grid, and power grid across the 27 countries, with hydrogen-storing renewable energy. With such an infrastructure, you can engage in commerce and trade with ease across your 27 states, and you have the largest internal market in the world, in terms of wealth, and a population of 500 million people.

How should this be reflected in concrete research priorities?

Our R&D should bring together all sorts of technologies. You have software, telecoms, the chemical industry, engineering, energy, power, utility companies. It’s really rethinking the entire infrastructure of how we make energy and how we distribute energy.

To what extent do you think that this should be driven centrally or that it will just happen?

It’s a combination. Many regions of Europe are already beginning to lay the foundations for what I’ve mentioned here. So, that’s bottom up. On the other hand, it’s going to require coordination at the national and EU levels. Something of this magnitude where we have to change the entire energy regime of the EU and the world in 25 years can only be done with the complete engagement of government at every level. And at the same time a total commitment by the business community, from SMEs to global companies, and civil society.

What we need is a generation of political leaders who say, “Ask not what Europe can do for you, but what you can do for Europe” and challenge a younger generation to begin in the schools and universities and the research institutions to prepare for the third industrial revolution and a post-carbon hydrogen economy. That’s a vision that we need for Europe and the world.

How do the US and other regions of the world fit in with this vision?

Well, California, the sixth largest economy in the world, is already building a green, hydrogen economy along the lines of what I’ve been talking about. They’re very far ahead, as they were with Silicon Valley and the IT revolution. They’ve already created a road map, and now New York and a few other states are following suit. Japan is pretty far along on this, too. The EU could be the leader, but it means that Germany and other countries, as well as Brussels, really have to take the lead now.

What has been the reaction of European leaders to the vision of a hydrogen economy?

Andris Piebalgs, Commissioner for Energy, has made renewable energy and hydrogen key parts of the New European Energy Policy and is advocating a new industrial revolution in energy. Last year, Chancellor Merkel asked me to come in and talk about how to boost the German economy. At one point, as a part of that I presented her with a paper on the third industrial revolution and a shift to the hydrogen economy. Subsequently, the Christian Democratic Union, her party, put that into their official energy platform. The centrepiece of their R&D will be the move to a hydrogen economy so that Germany can lead Europe.

Who would be the biggest beneficiaries from a move to the hydrogen economy?

I think that the biggest beneficiaries here are going to be the Third World. The reason people are powerless is that they have no power. It’s not just a quip, it’s literal. A third of the human race has no electricity. So what I’m suggesting is that this third industrial revolution, because it’s power to the people, allows us to finally get energy into the hands of everybody. Because renewable resources exist everywhere – unlike coal, oil, gas and uranium – there’s something for everybody. If we can harness renewable energy, store it in the form of hydrogen, and distribute it through smart power grids, the developing countries will be able to have electricity and become players in the third industrial revolution and in globalization. This would be true globalization from the bottom up.

So it’s going to be more of a level playing field? A multilateral world?

Yes, it moves us from the elite energies of the 19th and 20th centuries, fossil fuels and uranium, to the democratic energies of the 21st century: renewable energies, hydrogen storage for those energies and smart power grids to share those energies.

It’s a flat revolution with tremendous power because it allows us to distribute energy much more equitably. It allows people to be much more self-sufficient. More importantly, it will deal with climate change and the peak of global fossil fuel production.

So wealth will be distributed more evenly as well?

Wealth and economic activity follows energy, because energy is the key to producing, amassing and distributing all forms of wealth.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

When you take a look at what’s going on here with climate change, it’s really devastating. I just don’t think our species has figured out how devastating this is at this point. I don’t think we have a clue. But we have to believe we have the time. If we can be ‘mindful’ and do only what needs to be done, maybe we can still save the situation. The key is to get this change under 2°C. That’s why our hydrogen revolution’s critical.