Some months ago I reviewed a book in The THES , Hubber t's Peak: The Impending Oil Crisis , by Kenneth Deffeyes, which followed other little-known titles: The Golden Century of Oil and The Coming Oil Crisis . These have all contributed to a process of enlightenment in the perception of oil depletion.
When we describe oil and gas as fossil fuels, we admit that they were formed in the geological past and are therefore subject to depletion. The essence of depletion is obvious: as every beer drinker knows, the glass starts full and ends empty; we are born, we die and pass the turning point of middle age. Yet, it is strangely counter-intuitive. We have been making our weekly trip to the filling station for as long as we can remember, and we switch on the light without thought of the energy it uses. In what amounts to an act of faith, we suppose that this is the natural order of things. Economists tell us about their ineluctable "laws" whereby supply always matches demand. We have been bred on a belief in technological prowess: "The scientists will think of something."
Jeremy Rifkin makes a splendid contribution to this debate, opening with a historical review of the philosophical conflict between science and belief before moving on to the essential role of energy in the modern world. He touches on the collapse of past civilisations when their needs exceeded their physical resources and capacity. Was Darwin right to explain evolution in terms of the survival of the fittest? The long record of life on earth shows that certain species multiplied when they adapted to an environmental niche, but died out when their niche changed, leaving simpler species to survive and in turn give rise to new specialised offshoots. In this sense, it has been the simplest, not the fittest, that has survived longest. Will Homo sapiens use his claimed superior intellect to face up to the end of his oil-based environmental niche and find new solutions, or will he die out when the oil age ends? These, bluntly, are the options. We are now halfway through the oil age, so it is time to think about what follows.
Rifkin comes forward with a solution: the "hydrogen economy". He notes the concentration of power, including political power, in the major oil companies and energy suppliers. This sprang from the global nature of oil, with the need to find it in remote places, produce it, transport it, refine it and market it. The nature of the industry imposed centralisation, as did electricity supply, with its central generation and power lines.
But Rifkin wants to break this hegemony by introducing the fuel cell, whereby every household would become a small-scale generator, meeting its own needs and feeding any surplus to the grid or at least to the neighbours. An internet-based trade would develop. New super-efficient vehicles, powered by the fuel cell, would come into operation. When stationary, they would become electricity generators for domestic use. It would be a new industrial revolution. Unlike the first one, it would be environmentally benign, bringing new decentralised political and economic structures that would lessen tensions,while also reducing the emissions that may be causing the climate to change. Such tensions have never been higher, with the threat of war in the Middle East and its not-so-hidden oil agenda.
But as hydrogen barely occurs in the free state, the new strategy would call for the massive generation of hydrogen by industrial processes. In the early stages of the transition, it could be made by the electrolysis of water or by reforming natural gas, oil, coal or biomass, but that raises the issue of net energy. It would serve no purpose to make hydrogen if that took more conventional fuel than the hydrogen itself delivered. Eventually, renewable sources would have to be tapped. The most obvious is solar energy. Perhaps some of the world's deserts could be converted to mammoth solar collectors, generating electricity that in turn produces hydrogen for shipment to industrial centres in places lacking strong solar radiation. But shipping hydrogen is not cheap or easy. Perhaps an intermediate step could be the production of methanol or ammonia that could be transported easily and then reprocessed to release hydrogen.
Rifkin does not underestimate the technological challenges, but he points out that substantial progress has already been made. He believes that a great deal can be achieved, given the perception of the urgent need, the allocation of proper resources and, above all, the political will. He stresses that the time to start is now, while we still have enough oil and gas to ease the transition. The lead times are long and the adjustments difficult.
Perhaps the most interesting of the ideas explored by Rifkin are the political and social consequences of what he terms "truly democratic energy". Save in the onshore US, where the landowner has mineral rights, oil and gas resources are owned by the state, which either produces them itself or leases concessions to oil companies. This concentrates power of the critical energy supplies on which the world depends into very few hands. Decentralisation and subsidiarity of the hydrogen economy promise to be some of the more important effects, allowing people everywhere to live in better harmony with each other and within the environmental niche that nature has granted them.
Rifkin, who is an influential writer and lecturer at a major American business school, has produced a very readable book with an important message. It deserves to be studied in governments, in the boardrooms of business and, more important, by the citizens of the world - for it is up to them to plan their destiny within realistic options. In short, it speaks of nothing less than the survival of the species.
Colin Campbell is a board member of the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre in London.
The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth
Author - Jeremy Rifkin
ISBN - 0 7456 3041 3 and 3042 1
Publisher - Polity
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 294