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The Hydrogen Economy

The Third Industrial Revolution: Leading the Way to a Green Energy Era and a Hydrogen Economy

Lecture Synopsis:

We are approaching the sunset of the oil era in the first half of the 21st century. The price of oil on global markets continues to climb and peak global oil is within sight in the coming decades. At the same time, the dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is raising the earth's temperature and threatening an unprecedented change in the chemistry of the planet and global climate, with ominous consequences for the future of human civilization and the ecosystems of the earth.

While oil, coal, and natural gas will continue to provide a substantial portion of the world's and the European Union's energy well into the 21st century, there is a growing consensus that we are entering a twilight period where the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction is beginning to act as a drag on the world economy. During this twilight era, the 27 EU member states are making every effort to ensure that the remaining stock of fossil fuels is used more efficiently and are experimenting with clean energy technologies to limit carbon dioxide emissions in the burning of conventional fuels. These efforts fall in line with the EU mandate that the member states increase energy efficiency 20 percent by 2020 and reduce their global warming emissions 20 percent (based on 1990 levels), again by 2020. But, greater efficiencies and mandated global warming gas reductions, by themselves, are not enough to adequately address the unprecedented crisis of global warming and global peak oil and gas production. Looking to the future, every government will need to explore new energy paths and establish new economic models with the goal of achieving as close to zero carbon emissions as possible.

THE GREAT ECONOMIC REVOLUTIONS IN HISTORY: THE CONVERGENCE OF NEW ENERGY AND COMMUNICATIONS REGIMES

The great pivotal economic changes in world history have occurred when new energy regimes converge with new communication regimes. When that convergence happens, society is restructured in wholly new ways. In the early modern era, the coming together of coal powered steam technology and the print press gave birth to the first industrial revolution. It would have been impossible to organize the dramatic increase in the pace, speed, flow, density, and connectivity of economic activity made possible by the coal fired steam engine using the older codex and oral forms of communication. In the late nineteenth century and throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, first generation electrical forms of communication—the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, electric typewriters, calculators, etc.—converged with the introduction of oil and the internal combustion engine, becoming the communications command and control mechanism for organizing and marketing the second industrial revolution.

A great communications revolution occurred in the 1990s. Second generation electrical forms of communication—personal computers, the internet, the World Wide Web, and wireless communication technologies—connected the central nervous system of more than a billion people on Earth at the speed of light. And, although the new software and communication revolutions have begun to increase productivity in every industry, their true potential is yet to be fully realized. That potential lies in their convergence with renewable energy, partially stored in the form of hydrogen, to create the first “distributed” energy regimes.

The same design principles and smart technologies that made possible the internet, and vast distributed global communication networks, will be used to reconfigure the world's power grids so that people can produce renewable energy and share it peer-to-peer, just like they now produce and share information, creating a new, decentralized form of energy use. We need to envision a future in which millions of individual players can collect, produce and store locally generated renewable energy in their homes, offices, factories, and vehicles, and share their power generation with each other across a Europe-wide intelligent intergrid. (Hydrogen is a universal storage medium for intermittent renewable energies; just as digital is a universal storage mechanism for text, audio, video, data and other forms of media)

The question is often asked as to whether renewable energy, in the long run, can provide enough power to run a national or global economy? Just as second generation information systems grid technologies allow businesses to connect thousands of desktop computers, creating far more distributed computing power than even the most powerful centralized computers that exist, millions of local producers of renewable energy, using hydrogen storage and intelligent utility networks, can potentially produce far more distributed power than the older centralized forms of energy – oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear – that we currently rely on.

The creation of a renewable energy regime, partially stored in the form of hydrogen, and distributed via smart intergrids, opens the door to a Third Industrial Revolution and should have as powerful an economic multiplier effect in the 21st century as the convergence of mass print technology with coal and steam power technology in the 19th century, and the coming together of electrical forms of communication with oil and the internal combustion engine in the 20th century.

European industry has the scientific, technological, and financial know-how to spearhead the shift to renewable energies, a hydrogen economy, and an intelligent power grid and, by so doing, lead the world into a new economic era. Europe's world class automotive industry, chemical industry, engineering industry, construction industry, software, computer and communication industries, and banking and insurance industries, give it a leg up in the race to the Third Industrial Revolution.

By fostering renewable energies, a hydrogen infrastructure, and a continent-wide intelligent intergrid, the European Union can help create a sustainable economic development plan for its 500 million citizens in the first half of the 21st century.

The Third Industrial Revolution will require a wholesale reconfiguration of the transport, construction, and electricity sectors, creating new goods and services, spawning new businesses, and providing millions of new job.

Being first to market will position the European Union as a leader in the Third Industrial Revolution, giving it the commercial edge in the export of green technological know-how and equipment around the world. Producing a new generation of renewable energy technologies, manufacturing portable and stationary fuel cells, reinventing the automobile, transforming Europe's millions of buildings into power plants to produce renewable energy for internal consumption or distribution back to the grid, reconfiguring the electrical power grid as a intelligent utility network, as well as producing all of the accompanying technologies, goods and services that make up a high-tech Third Industrial Revolution economy, will have an economic multiplier effect that stretches well toward the mid decades of the 21st century.

The coming together of distributed communication technologies and distributed renewable energies via an open access, intelligent power grid, represents “power to the people”. For a younger generation that's growing up in a less hierarchical and more networked world, the ability to produce and share their own energy, like they produce and share their own information, in an open access intergrid, will seem both natural and commonplace.

The key challenge that every nation needs to address is where they want their country to be in ten years from now: In the sunset energies and industries of the second industrial revolution or the sunrise energies and industries of the Third Industrial Revolution. The Third Industrial Revolution is the end-game that takes the world out of the old carbon and uranium-based energies and into a non-polluting, sustainable future for the human race.

Jeremy Rifkin is president of The Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, DC. and teaches at the Wharton School's Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Rifkin is currently advising the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, during his presidency of the European Union (January to July 2008). Mr. Rifkin also served as an adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Jose Socrates of Portugal during their respective European Council Presidencies, on issues related to the economy, climate change, and energy security. He currently advises the European Commission, the European Parliament, and several EU heads of state, including Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain and Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy. Mr. Rifkin is the author of seventeen books on environmental, energy and economic related issues including The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth (Tarcher/Penguin).

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Articles from Global Column

Boston Globe, "Survivor's guide to the energy crisis", October 13, 2005


Chicago Tribune, "Stripping away the veneer", September 28, 2005


Worth Magazine, "Up and Atom", January, 2005


Boston Globe, "The Forever Fuel", February 23, 2003


Financial Times, "Energy's future is trapped in the fossil fuel past", February 11, 2003


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