Hydrogen - revolution or illusion?

At the heart of our collective fears over the energy of the future lies the impending battle for the earth's dwindling oil reserves, claims American economist and best-selling author Jeremy Rifkin and advocates a "hydrogen revolution". Making hydrogen supplies available worldwide is a complex and expensive business, says German renewable energy expert Hermann Scheer, winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize. Two views, one aim: the ideal energy scenario.

Photos: Theodor Barth • Interviewer: Kurt Uwe Westphal • Source

Kurt Uwe Westphal: Gentlemen, we are running out of fossil fuels. The obvious question is: what will replace them?

Jeremy Rifkin: We are not running out of fossil fuels, we are running out of cheap crude oil. We are reaching the end of the age of cheap crude and we will have to make a transition to a new energy regime. There is no doubt in my mind that the new energy regime is hydrogen. Hydrogen is the basic element of the universe, it is the 'forever' fuel. And when you use it, the only by-products are pure water and heat. Hermann Scheer, do you share this view of the scenario?

Scheer: The fossil fuel economy will definitely draw to a close in the course of this century, so we are in a race against time. We face two definite limits - the limit to our cheap fossil energy resources, and the ecological limit in terms of what the earth's ecosphere will withstand if we keep on burning all these fossil fuels. On a time scale, the ecological limit is closer than the resource limit, so that is the challenge we have to square up to in the first five decades of this century - the biggest and most important challenge civilization has ever faced.

Rifkin: In those five decades we must lay down an infrastructure for extracting hydrogen using renewable technologies. By 2050, I hope that we could be out of fossil fuel and nuclear as a major power source and into a fully integrated renewable hydrogen economy. But hydrogen is not a primary energy source - from what do you propose to extract it?

Rifkin: The most elegant way to extract hydrogen is with renewable technologies. First you employ solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass to generate electricity. Then you use some of that power directly, and with the surplus you electrolyze water to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen is the way to store renewable energy. When you generate electricity with renewable energies, that electricity flows immediately. What I am talking about is preparing for times when the sun doesn't shine for a few days or the wind stops blowing, or you have a drought and there's not enough water for hydroelectric power. If all your power comes directly from renewable resources, your electricity supply stops and your economy grinds to a halt. You cannot have a renewable energy society without hydrogen as a storage and transportation medium.

Scheer: I think you overestimate the role of hydrogen. There are many options - even for renewable energy storage - which don't require hydrogen. There are roughly ten different methods of decentralized storage of renewable energy. Hydrogen is just one. My concern is that if the whole attention is only focused on the hydrogen perspective, people will say, 'OK it will take decades to prepare for a hydrogen economy with all the infrastructural needs and so on', and this will become an alibi for not going down the roads which are open to us immediately. Hermann Scheer, you would like to see less emphasis on hydrogen and more on the right mix of renewables?

Scheer: The main difference between Jeremy Rifkin's picture of the renewable energy future and my own is our evaluation of the significance of hydrogen. It will be a solar economy - and I use 'solar' as the generic term for renewable - including solar hydrogen, but not a solar hydrogen economy per se. That's because, like you said, solar hydrogen is a so-called secondary energy, and the less steps we need to generate the renewable energies the better. Each form of renewable energy which we can use immediately, without going via hydrogen as a storage medium, should be consumed directly. The share of solar hydrogen in the coming solar age will be a minor one, perhaps not more than 10 per-cent. The main fuels for transportation will be bio-fuels, combined with hydrogen. Clearly, the main point is not the ultimate goal - moving from fossil to renewable energy sources - but the route we should take. What are the existing approaches in, say, Europe and the US?

Rifkin: As far as hydrogen is concerned, there are two very different approaches on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the European Union they are heavily underwriting the shift to renewable energy and the extraction of hydrogen as a storage carrier for renewables. The European Union has a target that 22 percent of its electricity and 12 percent of all of its energy have to be renewable energy by 2010. That has to be the most aggressive target date in the world. The US approach is to use hydrogen as a Trojan horse to bolster the old fashioned nuclear and fossil fuel regime. So we have two different visions of a hydrogen or solar future: The European vision which moves us finally off dependency on fossil fuels and the US vision which attempts to move into a hydrogen future without ever leaving the fossil fuel and nuclear past. Jeremy Rifkin, why do you insist that we need a hydrogen future?

Rifkin: You have to have a standard - one standard that everything eventually moves towards, bringing economies of scale and speed. Hydrogen, to my mind, is historically the de-carbonization standard we have been moving towards for 200 years. The world has more carbon than coal. Coal has more carbon than oil. Oil has more carbon than natural gas, and once you move to hydrogen, which is the basic physical element in the universe, you are out of the carbon cycle. This is the revolution. And do you have a road map to this revolution?

Rifkin: I would suggest that there have to be parallel tracks on the road to our hydrogen future. Track 1: Strict Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards; fuel efficiency; Kyoto; steward our fossil fuels. Do not let hydrogen be an excuse not to conserve fossil fuels. Track 2: Natural gas - short-term common ground between environmentalists and industry because it emits less CO2 and we are already heading that way for power generation. Track 3: Let's use those renewable technologies that are now ready for market, including hybrid cars, electric cars and the storage technologies that Hermann Scheer mentioned. And finally, Track 4- the deepest track - is to develop a government-private partnership to underwrite renewables and an infrastructure for hydrogen storage, so that in 25 years' time we will have reached a renewable hydrogen future. We must keep all the tracks going. Hydrogen is our future as long as it is renewable and we keep all these tracks open. What about the costs of renewable energy?

Rifkin: There are two cost curves here: The cost of oil and gas will go up as we pass peak production levels. And as the cost of oil and gas goes up, the cost of renewable technologies and fuel cells will come down.

Scheer: Exactly. Renewable energies will become cheaper as soon as production is industrialized. But we also need to consider the indirect or social cost of the present energy system here - the impact of fossil fuel emissions on human health. Who is going to pay for all this? Jeremy Rifkin, who puts up what share of the funds in your proposed public-private partnership, for example?

Scheer: We have to pay for every kind of energy anyway, and, as we already said, renewable energy will become cheaper. If we take the route via hydrogen, there will be costs for fuels, but for many renewable energy applications there are only technology costs and no fuel costs - solarheating in buildings is a case in point. The other point is that the infrastructural and availability costs you have in the long energy chain of the fossil energy system. Eighty percent of the energy costs in the electric power sector are costs for making the power available; only twenty percent concern the production of the electricity. Renewable energy offers more and more opportunities to avoid such costs by virtue of its decentralized nature. The favorites among renewable energy sources are those that offer the unique opportunity to avoid fuel costs and infrastructure costs by means of short energy chains and stand-by deliveries. Why is the notion of decentralized power - of generating your own electricity with solar cells on the roof of your home or from a fuel cell in your car - suddenly gaining ground?

Rifkin: The really great revolutions in history occur when you have a convergence between a new energy regime and a new form of communication between the people who organize it. Consider the coincidence of the printing press with steam power and coal; or the telegraph and telephone which became the command and control mechanism for oil and the internal combustion engine. What we have now is the great communications revolution of the 1990s in terms of software, digital technology and personal computers etc., and the power of networking. Add that power to distributive decentralized renewable energy with a hydrogen storage carrier and it is clear that we are talking about the third industrial revolution. Let's imagine that it's now 2020. How much of what we have just talked about is already in place? What's your vision?

Scheer: You can't look at the vision without seeing the barriers which we have to overcome first: political barriers, economic barriers due to the vested interests of the present energy system, and mental barriers. The present energy system is telling societies everywhere that renewable energy will not be able to meet our needs, is too expensive and incompatible with other energies. The outcome is a very real kind of 'technical' pessimism. What we need is the opposite force of 'technical' optimism. The renewable energy future is based on the components of solar energy technology and information technology. The solar information society - that's the vision, and after a time it will run faster and faster.

Rifkin: By 2020, I think we are going to see widespread use of portable hydrogen cartridges to power up our cell phones, laptops or whatever for forty days. Most people will become aware of hydrogen in this way. Secondly, many companies will no longer trust their utility company to provide them with enough power during peak load. So they will be willing to pay more to be first adopters of fuel cell technology that will give them back-up generation capacity. And thirdly, by 2020 a majority of the cars produced will be powered by fuel cells and not an internal combustion engine. Where else fuel cells will be used will depend on the price of electricity, oil and gas. So by 2020 I see us having laid down a significant infrastructure for a renewable-based hydrogen. FURTHER READING

Jeremy Rifkin: The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth(Tarcher/Putnam, 2002). Hermann

Scheer: The Solar Economy. Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Global Future (Earthscan Publications, 2002).

Hermann Scheer is a provocative alternative thinker and a leading advocate of a "solar economy". He is also the author of a number of works on the global energy scenario which have stimulated discussion beyond his home country of Germany. Holder of a doctorate in economics and social sciences, Scheer is a member of the German Federal Parliament and President of the solar energy association EUROSOLAR. His political commitment to renewable energy sources and his related publications have won recognition in the shape of the 1998 World Solar Award, the 1999 Alternative Nobel Prize, and the 2000 World Bio-Energy Award.

Jeremy Rifkin is a best-selling US author and dedicated thought-leader, widely held to be one of the most important contemporary critical observers. Rifkin's theories center on the major social, political and economic developments of our age. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and have often triggered international debates. Since 1994, Rifkin has been teaching at the renowned Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania, USA, where he lectures to executives from all over the world. He also advises political bodies including the US government and the European Union.