Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Hydrogen Economy: Genius or Madness?

A couple of days ago I attended a conference about sustainable development in China, where Jeremy Rifkin explained his theory about the "hydrogen economy." It's a novel vision, and it goes like this: According to Rifkin, industrial revolutions happen when a new way to utilize energy coincides with a new way to distribute information. The first one was when coal was used for the steam engine, and it coincided with mass printing. The second one was when oil was used for the combustion engine, and it coincided with the telegraph and telephone. In the face of rising oil prices, limited oil supply and limited security, as well as the environmental problems brought about by the climate change, Rifkin thinks that we are approaching the end of an era.

Rifkin draws his inspiration about a new energy distribution system from the Internet. He thinks everybody, households and businesses, will be producing their energy from renewable sources, like wind, solar power and biomass, store it as hydrogen, and then distribute and share energy through intelligent grids. In addition to solving our obvious problems regarding oil prices, security of supply and climate change, this will also spur sustainable development, he says, as the developing world will be able to produce its own energy.

Rifkin paints a great picture, although I'm not sure about the soundness of his technological assumptions. It's almost too good to be true. Can a new system be planned like this? After all, the first two industrial revolutions were not planned in advance. They evolved, new technologies and solutions came in increments, one thing followed another. People invented things partly out of necessity, but partly out of coincidence. That's why a grand scheme like this, as magnificent and logical as it sounds, can easily draw skepticism.

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