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Peak Oil versus Kurzweil's "fantastic voyage"


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#1 advancedatheist

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Posted 02 November 2004 - 12:17 AM


I wonder how Ray Kurzweil plans to "live forever" if, as the Peak Oil Cassandras warn, we are within years if not months of permanently declining oil (and therefore, energy) supplies. Our economic system absolutely demands an ever-increasing supply of energy from fossil fuels, year after year, so it will inevitably falter once the supply levels off and irreversibly declines, sort of like the economic implosion portrayed in Atlas Shrugged. (I doubt Ayn Rand studied the anthropological literature on collapsing complex societies, but she did intuitively understand the sort of disaster that has happened over and over again when human populations exceed their sustainable resource bases.)

I use the term "Cassandra" deliberately, because according to the Greek myth, the god Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but simultaneously cursed her with not being believed, no matter how empirically accurate her predictions were. Because oil extraction has already peaked in most of the world's oil provinces, the Peak Oil analysts are more like Cassandra than like Chicken Little. I grew up in a state (Oklahoma) that is littered with the relics of a petroleum-extracting industry that no longer exists, so I know it can happen to the rest of the world as well.

#2 jaydfox

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Posted 02 November 2004 - 02:54 PM

Our economic system absolutely demands an ever-increasing supply of energy from fossil fuels...

I strongly disagree. Our system demands (but not absolutely) an increasing (it's a bit early to proclaim "ever-"increasing) supply of energy utilization (not necessarily fossil-fuel-based, and factoring in future improvements in efficiency which can actually lower our gross energy needs even as our net energy needs increase).

The irony is that the oil-peak (which I do not dispute is real, and I'm starting to believe myself) will only spell disaster for civilization if we refuse to believe its potential and do something about it. Malthusian doomsayers are usually only proven wrong because they would have been right.

That said, I don't mind people going on about the oil-peak and all its implications for future societal stagnation and decay, because as long as they are shouting these things, others are going, "Wait a minute, you're wrong, we've got nuclear and a variety of other options at our disposal!", options that might not otherwise be seriously pursued were it not for the doomsayers...

But that's just my uninformed opinion, and I really haven't followed the whole oil-peak theories and this "Olduvai cliff" that I keep hearing about, so I could just be really naive...

#3 lightowl

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Posted 02 November 2004 - 07:02 PM

Naiveness is something that often follows the optimistic thinker. I have fallen into that trap more than once. It is to me almost inconceivable that the future of earth is one of miserable stagnation.

I think it is important to notice that there are believers in peak-oil that don't se the stretch as the end of technological progress. I am one of those people. I am convinced that oil will peak. I am not at all certain when, but it will peak some day ( on earth ). But I am not a doomsayer. I strongly believe that there are alternatives to fossil fuels. I recently read that a method to dispose of radioactive waste has been claimed to have been discovered that would solve THE problem with nuclear power. So at the time I think nuclear power is the best way to limit the use of oil in power grid supply production.

http://www.progress....004/fold373.htm
http://www.sovereign...eco/future.html

Besides nuclear power, we have a bunch of technologies that with time can be used as alternatives throughout energy demanding situations. So to go back to the topic, I think the "hope" of extended longevity goes hand in hand with the "hope" that technology will advance rapidly in our near future. Ray has realized and shown that we have a technological double exponential curve at hand. I think that is why he still believes that he can live forever despite the doomsayers claims that the world as we know it will end in a few years.

I to think the world as we know it will end soon. But not in a few years, and not in a catastrophe by our terms. That is just the optimist in me speaking. It might be naive, but who knows. :p

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#4 jaydfox

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Posted 02 November 2004 - 08:48 PM

I to [sic] think the world as we know it will end soon.

(my emphasis added)

Well, define "as we know it"! With the singularity(ies) approaching, I too think the world "as we know it" will end. But human life will go on on this planet, in whatever physical form, under whatever political, religious, and technological systems that evolve. Whether we are held captive under "evil" AIs, I can't say, but I seriously doubt that the world of 2054 will look anything like the world of today. The differences in social, political, and religious aspects will be comparable to or greater than the differences between today and the Renaissance. Just the last ten years has seen huge shifts in political and social systems, though the religious systems are slower to change (perhaps by their very nature, where God's will and not Man's knowledge are supposed to dictate?)

Nuclear is definitely going to be a big component in "saving the world" in the next 50 years. I don't know if oil is going to peak this year, this decade, in 30 years, or if it peaked already... But I do know that with our increasing energy needs, even if we factor in increased energy efficiency (at power plants, in electricty delivery, in electrical appliances, in automobiles, etc.), we will have to start a *major* shift away from oil (and natural gas, and coal) for energy in the next 50 years. (Other uses for fossil fuels, such as plastics and fertilizers, may have more time, but they too will need a new direction eventually.) Maybe renewables hold part of the answer, maybe not. But nuclear seems the most logical direction, even without factoring in the waste problem. But with the waste problem effectively solved, the arguments against nuclear pretty much fall apart.

There's also fusion, but fusion, as much promise as it may hold someday, is still too expensive and dependent on technology not yet developed. I see fusion power becoming a key player in the 22nd century, but unless the Singularity pushes the costs and technical limits way down, I don't foresee fusion power being a better alternative to fission in the next 50-80 years.

#5 DJS

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Posted 02 November 2004 - 08:59 PM

Planetp hasn't been around for a while, but he has a good section on his site for alternative energy sources.

He's got some interesting ideas [thumb]

Futurehi-energy

#6 lightowl

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Posted 02 November 2004 - 09:17 PM

Well, define "as we know it"!

...

The differences in social, political, and religious aspects will be comparable to or greater than the differences between today and the Renaissance.


That is exactly my point.

When peak-oil doomsayers talk about the end of the world, they mostly talk about the end of most human life on earth. Their argument is that we will not have enough resources to sustain these mega-cities, and I tend to agree with that argument if the situation should arrive that demand vastly exceeds production of whatever energy source is needed.

When I talk about the end of the world, I generally predict that society as we know it will evolve and diversify to an inconceivable extent. The fact, to me, that we are going to augment our bodies and minds will have a profound effect on how we perceive the world around us. I think that some societies, or lots of individuals, will live many years in virtual worlds that to an outsider would not exist. Earth could be totally quiet on the surface, but teeming with life in the information streams.

But that will only be one branch on our technology development tree. A tree that is embracing both our minds and bodies in an increasingly invasive way. I already feel a stranger to my grandparents to that extent that we sometimes cant understand each other, and we rarely have anything to talk about. I have some friends who have children they have a hard time understanding. I think the next step is that siblings born a few years apart will have nothing in common besides having the same parent(s).

So the world as we know it will most certainly end. :p

#7 advancedatheist

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Posted 03 November 2004 - 08:03 PM

I don't mind people going on about the oil-peak and all its implications for future societal stagnation and decay, because as long as they are shouting these things, others are going, "Wait a minute, you're wrong, we've got nuclear and a variety of other options at our disposal!", options that might not otherwise be seriously pursued were it not for the doomsayers...


It's not widely appreciated how nuclear power needs a massive energy subsidy from fossil fuels to be practical. We use fossil fuels to mine, transport, process and assemble fissionable fuels for nuclear reactors. The Homer Simpsons who drive to the nuclear power plant every day need gasoline and oil for their cars.

In other words, while we need and can use oil to get at additional oil, coal, natural gas and uranium, we aren't in a position to use nuclear power to get at the materials for additional nuclear power. The nuclear power system can't sustain itself from its own energy, in other words.

#8 jaydfox

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Posted 03 November 2004 - 08:07 PM

It's not widely appreciated how nuclear power needs a massive energy subsidy from fossil fuels to be practical. We use fossil fuels to mine, transport, process and assemble fissionable fuels for nuclear reactors. The Homer Simpsons who drive to the nuclear power plant every day need gasoline and oil for their cars.

In other words, while we need oil to get at additional oil, coal, natural gas and uranium, we aren't in a position to use nuclear power to get at the materials for additional nuclear power. The nuclear power system can't sustain itself from its own energy, in other words.

That assumes that oil production ceases. We're talking about a peak. If oil production fell 5%, but we converted 10% of our power infrastructure to nuclear, that leaves a 5% margin for all those other steps you mention, or about a 50% energy cost for nuclear. I don't know what the cost is, but I seriously doubt it's 50%.

#9 advancedatheist

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Posted 03 November 2004 - 08:39 PM

It's not widely appreciated how nuclear power needs a massive energy subsidy from fossil fuels to be practical. We use fossil fuels to mine, transport, process and assemble fissionable fuels for nuclear reactors. The Homer Simpsons who drive to the nuclear power plant every day need gasoline and oil for their cars.

In other words, while we need oil to get at additional oil, coal, natural gas and uranium, we aren't in a position to use nuclear power to get at the materials for additional nuclear power. The nuclear power system can't sustain itself from its own energy, in other words.

That assumes that oil production ceases. We're talking about a peak. If oil production fell 5%, but we converted 10% of our power infrastructure to nuclear, that leaves a 5% margin for all those other steps you mention, or about a 50% energy cost for nuclear. I don't know what the cost is, but I seriously doubt it's 50%.


Oil extraction isn't going to "cease" suddenly. After all, Oklahoma still has something like 80,000 stripper wells each squeezing out about 2 barrels/day on average. The problem starts when the rate of extraction reaches a plateau and then declines a few years later. We would need to divert a substantial amount of oil from the diminishing stream towards building nuclear reactors, and even then they wouldn't be able to go online for at least a decade What would you like to give up in exchange for that -- air conditioning, heating, fresh fruits in the winter from the opposite hemisphere, plastics, meat and all the other energy intensive commodities we currently need oil to enjoy?

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#10 lightowl

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Posted 04 November 2004 - 01:34 AM

The nuclear power system can't sustain itself from its own energy.


Assuming that oil will peak within one decade, I tend to agree with you that we have no alternative to gasoline for mining and transporting nuclear fuel at present time. This is where the peak oil discussion often stagnates. On the question of how long we have before the peak. If we are assuming that the peak will not happen within 10 years, we should have enough time to develop new nuclear power plants, and design mining and transport equipment that runs on hydrogen fuel produced by those same power plants.

I am under the impression that natural gas production will not peak within this decade, so it would be feasible to use gas as fuel for transportation in the short term. That would of course divert some demand from oil to gas, so that would even out the score.

By 2015 I am under the impression that fuel cell technology will have evolved to an economical stage, so if we can do something by then, I think we are on the right track. If we get rid of oil as transportation fuel and power grid production fuel, we would be a great step on the way. Demand for oil would have been greatly reduced, and oil would have become abundant, assuming there is no cut in production resulting from lower oil prices.

This is my optimism chart on when the oil peaks.

within 10 years - Major problem. Total disaster.
within 10-20 years - Manageable problem. Solvable only with major political commitment.
within 20-30 years - Minor problem. Probably solvable by market forces.
within 30-40 years - No problem at all. Technology will have prevailed.

This is an open table.

#11 jaydfox

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Posted 04 November 2004 - 01:05 PM

within 10 years - Major problem. Total disaster.

I agree with the major problem part. I disagree with total disaster, however. There is enough inefficiency in the system that could be cleaned up relatively quickly, that if oil peaked today, it would not be a total disaster. That is, if it peaked, but did not proceed to drop at 5%-10% per year. If it peaks and even drops at 1%-2% per year, the economy will probably go through another recession, but political and economic forces will prevent "total" disaster (e.g. unrestricted drilling in Alaska, if necessary).

We may yet see another Great Depression if we don't realize that the peak has occured until a year or two later, but I think the economic forces will have a pretty accurate look at production and they'll see the peak. Of course, the oil companies would probably want such a disaster, because supply and demand dictates that they can raise prices on, if nothing else, gasoline, without Congressional meddling. Oil for heating and shipping may get subsidized, but the average commuter isn't going to get a break in their gas prices if it means societal collapse due to failure to conserve. On the other hand, I could foresee huge tax incentives for hybrids and other low-emission (i.e. low fossil-fuel consumption) vehicles. I also see a lock-down on 2-stroke engines, if not for the environmental reasons, then simply because they are less fuel-efficient per horsepower than 4-strokes.

Now all these oil pipeline bombings, etc., in Iraq lately aren't helping. If order cannot be restored in Iraq in the next decade, then aren't we looking at a de facto peak already? Can the other OPEC nations make up for this loss of production on a long-term basis?

#12 jaydfox

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Posted 04 November 2004 - 01:09 PM

within 10 years - Major problem. Total disaster.

I agree with the major problem part. I disagree with total disaster, however. There is enough inefficiency in the system that could be cleaned up relatively quickly, that if oil peaked today, it would not be a total disaster.


All this assumes that the oil peak doesn't occur while Bush is in office. If Bush/Cheney are in office when the peak occurs, then all bets are off. Total disaster would ensue. I forgot to take that into account. Given that Bush most likely won the election (I still haven't heard the official results from Ohio, just the assumptions based on the known facts), then if oil peaks in the next 2-3 years, we're probably screwed.

#13 Lazarus Long

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Posted 04 November 2004 - 02:46 PM

The general appreciation of Peak Oil is still apparently misunderstood even here. We have already reached Peak Oil, it is about rates of consumption versus BOTH KNOWN SUPPLY and the RATE/VOLUME of DISCOVERY for new sources.

This is simply all about economics at its core. Demand is increasing dramatically as the many emerging technologies join the US in (excessive & inefficient) consumption and the rate of discovery has now been falling off for a number of years, while supply has been flat for almost a decade.

Demand today is at its all time high and likely to increase as we go forward. Supply has statistically already plateaued and the volume and cost of new oil deposits is making the price go up dramatically. This will dampen development and consumption (hopefully promoting alternatives) but it is also providing an incentive to EXPLOIT the scenario for the largest potential profits in modern history (i.e. Enron).

There is some point in the future when the tank runs dry but it is not today or tomorrow. We are not yet running on empty but we are past half full and need to be looking for resupply soon or risk a shut down. The infrastructure, to include nuclear depends on fossil fuel to function (mining, refining, and shipping of fuel waste etc).

There are no *singular* quick fixes and no simple panacea alternatives. Incrementally and steadily things are going to begin an accelerating (slowly at first) inflationary cycle and some aspects of industrial production are going to begin to fail but the process is not likely to be sudden as much as hyperbolic as system after system begins to fail contributing to other systemic failures that leads to serious global economic depression and this effect will dampen consumption prolonging supply but will probably also result in *resource wars* that we are already witnessing.

#14 eternaltraveler

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 05:13 AM

In other words, while we need and can use oil to get at additional oil, coal, natural gas and uranium, we aren't in a position to use nuclear power to get at the materials for additional nuclear power. The nuclear power system can't sustain itself from its own energy, in other words.


This is surmountable by using nuclear energy to split water into hydrogen, and making engines that run on hydrogen.

Hydrogen is a great way to store nuclear energy for use in vehicles, it just sucks when they make hydrogen using fossil fuels.

#15 jaydfox

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 04:04 PM

Maybe I'm missing the point, but does it matter if we can't convert nuclear to a form that is useful for mining/transporting/refining, etc.? I mean, as I see it, we're using oil for purposes not related to mining, etc. nuclear fuel, purposes which CAN be powered by nuclear.

As long as we have coal, oil, and natural gas power plants, we are wasting fossil fuels that could otherwise be used to run the nuclear infrastructure (which would replace those fossil fuel power plants). Sure, the fossil fuels eventually run out, but it's a pretty good bandaid if it buys us another 50 years to get hydrogen and other alternatives firmly in place.

#16 Lazarus Long

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 04:24 PM

No you are not missing the point. We are allowing a *marketplace* to determine technical efficiency for the allocation of critical resources and some of these sectors are compromised by seeing an advantage in scarcity driven demand to waste their products.

Nuclear can't make fertilizers but it could power electric driven urban and regional transit. But if the marketplace is assumed to have *total* control over the regulation of uses then the demands of the commons are more the subject of manipulation until consumers are smart enough and powerful enough to act as a buying block but that is exactly what the energy industry, like the pharmaceuticals are terrified of. That is why the recent Bush legislation tried to guarantee the hamstringing of Federal Medicare from bulk buying its own drugs from thoroughly open competition with say the likes of Walmart.

However the States are beginning to consider doing exactly that. The same idea could be applied to forcing various sectors into compliance. If the States for example began stockpiling reserves of Oil and Gas like the Feds do for strategic reasons and released it in critical times to stabilize prices they could buffer market extremes and protect citizens from wanton exploitation as we saw with Enron. Do you think it will happen?

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it.

#17 jaydfox

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 04:31 PM

But the Libertarians are never wrong, right? The free market should decide this.

;)

#18 jaydfox

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 04:32 PM

Sorry, wasn't supposed to be a ;), I meant to do a [tung]

#19 eternaltraveler

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 07:57 PM

Nuclear can't make fertilizers but it could power electric driven urban and regional transit.


You can use electrical energy(from nuclear) to make nitrates out of the atmosphere. It is just an energy intensive process. That is one way nitric acid is produced commercially, using a platinum catalyst. Mix nitric acid with ammonia, you have ammonium nitrate; fertilizer.

The way I see it we can continue to use more and more energy, we just need another source. Nuclear (fission) is a great source for now. Further along fusion becomes an option. That powers stars so it should last us a long time. Maybe later on we decide to try to tap into quantum fluctuations in the fabric of space-time as a source of energy, but probably not for a lot longer because market forces won't make us move away from fusion until the hydrogen starts to run out in the universe ;)

Remember fossil fuels are nuclear energy. They are just nuclear energy from the sun stored by plants millions of years ago.
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#20 Jay the Avenger

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 10:05 PM

What does any of this have to do with Kurzweil's desire to live forever?

#21 jaydfox

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 10:41 PM

I think the connection was that if the Peak Oil Doomsday scenario plays out, society and the economy will crumble, and without an economic engine to fund the development of longer lifespans, physical immortality is pretty much out of the question for those of us alive today, including Ray Kurzweil.

Of course, Ray Kurzweil is very concerned about the future of humanity, whether the threat be political, military, terrorist, or economic. So I'm sure he's already been thinking about this, and he's probably concluded that it's not a credible threat yet.

#22 Jay the Avenger

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 11:11 PM

Yeah, good point indeed.


While there is an article on wikipedia.org that says it is a wide misconception that hydrogen is a good alternative fuelsource, Kurzweil has something else to say about it.

http://www.kurzweila...tml?printable=1

His third point in the article at that link says there have been dramatic improvements in hydrogen-fuelsources, and that these are able to fuel cars, etcetera.

While I'm typing this... I'm reminded of a news-broadcast about cars running on cheap natural resources. I believe some guy actually managed to use a resource that came directly out of wheat (or something like that) to run a car.

Smalley has also stated that nanotechology holds the answers to providing other energysources. But then again.... Smalley practices silly science, as we all know.

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#23 advancedatheist

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Posted 05 November 2004 - 11:58 PM

What does any of this have to do with Kurzweil's desire to live forever?


Nobody is going to become an "immortal posthuman" anything if the civilizational substrate collapses. Our massive but now sputtering subsidy of fossil sunlight in the last couple of centuries has propelled us into an precedented economic/environmental/demographic situation, and we have become extraordinarily vulnerable to disruptions in the supply.

#24 advancedatheist

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Posted 06 November 2004 - 12:02 AM

I'm reminded of a news-broadcast about cars running on cheap natural resources. I believe some guy actually managed to use a resource that came directly out of wheat (or something like that) to run a car.


Again, this reveals ignorance of thermodynamic reality. American-style wheat farming uses several calories of energy from fossil fuels to grow one calorie of wheat energy. You actually lose maybe 90% of the fossil fuels energy by turning it into wheat first.

#25 Jay the Avenger

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Posted 06 November 2004 - 10:03 AM

Thanks for calling me ignorant.

Is that the reason why some people say hydrogen is not a good alternative?

I don't trust people who say hydrogen is no alternative. I've been doing my own research: more sources are pointing out that it *is*, than there are sources that say it's not.

This whole peak-oil stuff reminds of the y2k crap we all went through a few years ago. Not a very scientific manner of reasoning, I know. But so far it has shown itself to be quite effective in my life, nonetheless.

Basically, what this guy on lifeaftertheoilcrash.net is saying, is:"The day of doom is nigh! Buy my book!". And he's not afraid of twisting people's words, and taking them out of context, either.

Scientists (= people who know what they're talking about) are saying hydrogen is the way to go. Fuel cell cars already exist. Our economy is supposed to make the switch from oil to hydrogen not too many years from now (there are some nice articles on www.howstuffworks.com about this). Furthermore, I don't see any prominent scientists apply scare tactics like lifeaftertheoilcrash.net, as they obviously would if there really was a problem this size coming our way.

Seems to me like everything is going to turn out just fine.

#26 Jay the Avenger

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Posted 06 November 2004 - 03:48 PM

http://www.emagazine.com/view/?171

COVER STORY
The Hydrogen Economy
After Oil, Clean Energy From a Fuel-Cell-Driven Global Hydrogen Web
by Jeremy Rifkin

More than a year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, the world is a more dangerous place than ever before. And, at the heart of our collective fear is the struggle to control oil, the one critical resource without which our global economy and modern society could not exist. Can a combination of technological innovation, global cooperation and strategic thinking take oil off the international chessboard of power politics and replace it with the ultimate energy carrier, lighter-than-air, and potentially non-polluting hydrogen?

We heat our homes and businesses, run our factories, power our transportation and light our cities with fossil fuels. We communicate over distances with electricity derived from fossil fuels, grow our food with the help of fossil fuels and produce our clothes and home appliances with petrochemicals. Indeed, virtually every aspect of modern existence is made from, powered with, or affected by fossil fuels.

In recent months U.S. government concern over the availability of oil in the Middle East has intensified because of the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians, the prospect of war with Iraq, and the likelihood of more terrorist attacks by the Al Qaeda network. Now, an even deeper worry is beginning to surface.

Experts have been saying that we have another 40 or so years of cheap recoverable crude oil left. Now, however, some of the world’s leading petroleum geologists are suggesting that global oil production could peak and begin a steep decline much sooner, as early as the end of this decade, sending oil prices through the roof. Non-OPEC oil-producing countries are already nearing their peak production, leaving most of the remaining reserves in the politically unstable Middle East. Increasing tensions between Islam and the West are likely to further threaten our access to affordable oil. Rising oil prices will assuredly plunge developing countries even further into debt, locking much of the Third World in the throes of poverty for years to come. In desperation, the U.S. and other nations could turn to dirtier fossil fuels—coal, tar sand and heavy oil—which will only worsen global warming and imperil the Earth’s already-beleaguered ecosystems.

Rethinking Homeland Security

As horrible as the attacks of September 11, 2001 were, they were symbolic acts on the parts of the perpetrators, designed to destroy the icons of American economic and military power. What has government officials and business leaders in the U.S. and the European Union really worried is the prospect that, next time, Al Qaeda terrorists will strike at the heart of the system, the power grid itself, crippling a large swath of the economy and paralyzing urban society. How justified are the fears?

Unfortunately the power grids in North America and Europe are increasingly vulnerable to disruption by terrorists. Even before the September 11 attacks, government officials worried that American power plants, transmission lines and the telecommunications infrastructure could be targets for terrorists. In 1997, the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection issued a warning that cyber-terrorists’ next target might be the computer programs at the power switching centers that move electricity around the country. Disrupting the electrical grid could wreak havoc on the nation’s economic and social infrastructures. Richard A. Clarke, who heads the cyber-terrorism efforts of the Bush administration, warns of an “Electronic Pearl Harbor.” A combination of cyber-attacks and physical attacks could lay waste to the nation’s oil and gas pipelines, power stations and transmission lines with devastating effects on the economy.

Government officials are well aware of the vulnerabilities, but not sure if a system so complex and expansive and so centralized in its command and control mechanisms can ever really be completely secured against terrorist attacks.

Because of all these factors, many, including Christopher Flavin, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, believe that the future belongs to decentralized, renewable energy. Although they acknowledge that fossil fuels will continue to provide energy, and that a transmission and distribution infrastructure will still be necessary to get hydrogen to retail customers, these experts see a renewable future. Flavin points out that the market for oil is growing at less than 1.5 percent per year, while the wind and photovoltaic (PV) markets are now doubling in size every three years.

The “Forever Fuel”

While the fossil-fuel era is entering its sunset years, a new energy regime is being born that has the potential to remake civilization along radical new lines. Hydrogen is the most basic and ubiquitous element in the universe. It is the stuff of stars and, when properly harnessed and made from renewable sources, it is the “forever fuel,” notes author and alternative energy proponent Peter Hoffman. It produces no harmful CO2 emissions when burned; the only byproducts are heat and pure water. We are at the dawn of a new economy, using hydrogen as the energy carrier, which will fundamentally change the nature of our financial markets, political and social institutions, just as coal and steam power did at the beginning of the Industrial Age.

As Hoffman writes in his book, Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet (MIT Press), hydrogen can “propel airplanes, cars, trains and ships, run plants, and heat homes, offices, hospitals and schools….As a gas, hydrogen can transport energy over long distances, in pipelines, as cheaply as electricity (under some circumstances, perhaps even more efficiently), driving fuel cells or other power-generating machinery at the consumer end to make electricity and water. As a chemical fuel, hydrogen can be used in a much wider range of energy applications than electricity.”

Chemically bound hydrogen is found everywhere on Earth: in water, fossil fuels and all living things. Yet, it rarely exists free floating in nature. Instead, it has to be extracted from water or from hydrocarbons. Today, nearly half the hydrogen produced in the world is derived from natural gas via a steam reforming process. The natural gas reacts with steam in a catalytic converter. The process strips away the hydrogen atoms, leaving carbon dioxide as the byproduct (and, unfortunately, releasing it to the atmosphere as a global warming gas). Coal can also be reformed through gasification to produce hydrogen, but this is more expensive than using natural gas and also releases CO2, which scientists hope to keep earthbound through a process called “carbon sequestration.” Hydrogen can also be processed from gasoline or methanol, though again CO2 is an unwanted byproduct.

Although using steam to reform natural gas has proven thus far to be the cheapest way to produce commercial hydrogen, global production of natural gas is likely to peak sometime between 2020 and 2030, creating a second energy crisis on the heels of the oil crisis.

There is, however, another way to produce hydrogen without using fossil fuels in the process. Renewable sources of energy—PV, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass—can be harnessed to produce electricity. The electricity, in turn, can be used, in a process called electrolysis, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be stored and later used in a fuel cell to generate electricity, with heat as a useful byproduct that could be harnessed to heat homes, among other uses. Fuel cells run only on hydrogen, but the gas can be derived from many hydrogen-rich sources, including just about any fossil fuel, but only through the use of renewable resources is the whole process emission-free.

People often ask: Why generate electricity twice, first to produce electricity for the process of electrolytic hydrogen and then again to produce electricity and heat in a fuel cell? The reason is that electricity can be stored only in batteries, which are cumbersome to transport and slow to recharge, while hydrogen can be stored at much lower cost. Internal-combustion engines capture only 15 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline, and the conventional electric power grid is only 33 percent efficient. But as Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) points out, “Fuel cells can convert 40 to 65 percent of hydrogen’s energy into electricity.”

The real question, then, is one of costs. Wind, hydropower and biomass (generating power by burning plant material such as wood waste and agricultural residue) are already cost competitive in many parts of the world and can be used to generate electricity for the electrolysis process. Wind power, for instance, is now the fastest growing new source of energy; it averages six to eight cents per kilowatt-hour at the wind generator, down from 40 cents in the early 1980s, though collection and transmission costs must be added. PV and geothermal costs, however, are still high and will need to come down considerably to make the process competitive with the natural gas steam reforming process now used most often in the production of hydrogen.

Origins of the Fuel Cell

Hydrogen fuel cells were invented by Sir William Robert Grove (1811-1896), a larger-than-life figure of the type that proliferated in 19th century England. Grove proved that his fuel cells worked, but as he had no entrepreneurial inclinations, and there was no practical use for them at that time, the invention slumbered for over 130 years. It came to life again in the 1960s, when General Electric developed workable proton-exchange membrane cells for use as power supplies in the Apollo and Gemini space missions. The cells were big and very expensive, but they performed faultlessly, delivering an unwavering supply of current as well as a very useful byproduct in space, drinkable fresh water.

Fuel-cell technology can be compared to that of a car battery, in that hydrogen and oxygen are combined to produce electricity. But while batteries store both their fuel and their oxidizer internally, meaning they have to be periodically recharged, the fuel cell can run continuously because its fuel and oxygen are external. Fuel cells themselves are stackable flat plates, each one producing about one volt. The size of the stack determines the power output.

How does a fuel cell work? Pure hydrogen gas is fed to the anode, one of two electrodes in each cell. The process strips the hydrogen atoms of their electrons, turning them into hydrogen ions, which then pass through an electrolyte (which, depending on the type of fuel cell, can be phosphoric acid, molten carbonate or another substance) to the second electrode, known as the cathode. This electron movement produces electric current, the intensity of which is decided by the size of the electrodes. At the cathode, the electrons are brought back together with their ions and combined with oxygen to produce one of the fuel cell’s major byproducts, water. The other byproduct is heat, which can be captured and reused in a cogeneration process.

Peer-to-Peer Energy Sharing

Commercial fuel cells powered by hydrogen are just now being introduced into the market for home, office and industrial use. The major automakers have spent over $2 billion developing hydrogen cars, buses and trucks, and the first mass-produced vehicles are expected to be on the road beginning in 2003.

The hydrogen economy makes possible a vast redistribution of electricity, with far-reaching consequences for society. Today’s centralized, top-down flow of energy, controlled by global oil companies and utilities, can become obsolete. In the new era, every human being with access to renewable

energy sources could become a producer as well as a consumer—using so-called “distributed generation.” When millions of end-users connect their fuel cells powered by renewables into local, regional and national publicly owned hydrogen energy webs (HEWs), they can begin to share energy—peer-to-peer—creating a new decentralized form of energy generation and use.

In the new hydrogen fuel-cell era, even the automobile itself is a “power station on wheels” with a generating capacity of 20 kilowatts. Since the average car is parked about 96 percent of the time, it can be plugged in, during non-use hours, to the home, office or the main interactive electricity network, providing premium electricity back to the grid. As hydrogen visionary Amory Lovins explains, “Once you put a fuel cell in an ultralight car, you then have a 20- to 25-kilowatt power station on wheels. So why not lease those fuel-cell cars to people who work in buildings where you’ve installed fuel cells?”

It would work like this: Commuters drive their cars to work, then plug them into the hydrogen line coming out of the natural gas reformer installed as part of the building’s fuel cell. While they worked, their cars would produce electricity, which they could then sell back to the grid. The car, instead of simply occupying space, would become a profit center. “It does not take many people doing this to put the rest of the coal and nuclear plants out of business,” says Lovins, who’s been trying to do just that for decades. “The hypercar fleet will eventually have five to six times the generating capacity of the national grid.”

The Next Great Economic and Social Revolution

This clean fuel could make obsolete our big-scale, polluting oil network through a locally based system. The first thing to keep in mind is that with distributed generation, every family, business, neighborhood and community is potentially consumer, producer and vendor of hydrogen and electricity. Because fuel cells are located physically at the sites where the hydrogen and electricity are going to be produced and partially consumed, with surplus hydrogen sold as fuel and surplus electricity sent back onto the energy network, the ability to aggregate large numbers of producer/users into associations is critical to energy empowerment and the advancing of the vision of democratic energy.

Empowering people and democratizing energy will require that public institutions and nonprofit organizations—local governments, cooperatives, community development corporations, credit unions and the like—jump in at the beginning of the new energy revolution and help establish distributed generation associations in every country.

Eventually, the end users’ combined generating power via the energy web will exceed the power generated by the utility companies at their own central plants. When that happens, it will constitute a revolution in the way energy is produced and distributed. Once the customer, the end user, becomes the producer and supplier of energy, power companies around the world will be forced to redefine their role if they are to survive. A few power companies are already beginning to explore a new role as bundler of energy services and coordinator of energy activity on the energy web that is forming. In the new scheme of things, power companies would become “virtual utilities,” assisting end users by connecting them with one another and helping them share their energy surplus profitably and efficiently. Coordinating content rather than producing it becomes the mantra for power companies in the era of distributed generation.

Utility companies, interestingly enough, serve to gain—at least in the short run—from distributed generation; though, until recently, many have fought the development. Because distributed generation is targeted to the very specific energy requirements of the end user, it is less costly and a more efficient way to provide additional power than is relying on a centralized power source. It costs a utility company between $365 and $1,100 per kilowatt to install a six-mile power line to a three-megawatt residential customer. A distributed generation system based on renewable energy can meet the same electricity requirements at a cost between $500 and $1,000 per kilowatt. Generating the electricity at or near the end users’ location also reduces the amount of energy used because between five and eight percent of the energy transported over long distance lines is lost in the transmission. Europe’s Hydrogen Investment



Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, the governing body of the 15-nation European Union (EU), has unveiled the EU’s $2 billion commitment to a renewable hydrogen-based energy economy. Jeremy Rifkin, the author of this piece and an advisor to President Prodi, was the architect of the strategic white paper that launched the initiative.

The aim, Prodi said in U.S. remarks that were covered both by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, is to bring industry, the research community and government together to map out the hydrogen future. President Prodi said that the EU’s scientific effort will be as important for Europe as the space program was for the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The EU has already committed itself to producing 22 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

U.S. power companies are reluctant to make large financial investments in capital expansion because, under the new utility restructuring laws, they can no longer pass the costs of new capacity investment onto their customers. And because the field is now very competitive, power companies are reluctant to take funds from their reserves to finance new capacities. The result is that they put stress on existing plants beyond their ability to keep up with demand, leading to more frequent breakdowns and power outages. That is why a number of power companies are looking to distributed generation as a way to meet the growing commercial and consumer demand for electricity while limiting their financial exposure.

The energy revolution will advance on several fronts simultaneously. Before the hydrogen network can be fully realized, changes in the existing electricity grid will have to be made to assure both easy access to the web and a smooth flow of energy services over the web. That’s where the software and communication revolution comes in. Connecting thousands and then millions of fuel cells to main grids will require sophisticated dispatch and control mechanisms to route energy traffic during peak and non-peak periods. The Windsor, Colorado-based Encorp has already developed a software program for remote monitoring and control that would automatically switch local generators onto the main grid during peak loads when more auxiliary energy was required. Retrofitted existing systems are estimated to run about $100 per kilowatt, which is still less costly than building new capacity.

The integration of state-of-the-art computer technologies transforms the centralized grid into a fully interactive intelligent energy network. Sensors and intelligent agents embedded throughout the system can provide up-to-the-moment information on energy conditions, allowing current to flow exactly where and when it is needed and at the cheapest price. Sage Systems, for example, has built a software program that allows utilities to set back thousands of customers’ thermostats by two degrees with a single command over the Internet if the system is at peak and over-stressed.

Hydrogen Safety

The issue of hydrogen safety inevitably arises, largely because of the spectacular fire that killed 36 people and destroyed the German dirigible Hindenburg. That 1937 disaster put an immediate end to zeppelin travel and saddled hydrogen with a nasty reputation it still carries with it today.

However, The Hindenburg was actually not hydrogen-fueled. The buoyant gas, used because helium was not available to the increasingly bellicose Nazi regime (the famous German airship bore a swastika on each side of its tail), filled 16 cells in the airship’s body and gave it lift. Was the hydrogen on board The Hindenburg responsible for the fire? Conventional history has made that case, but retired NASA engineer Addison Bain, a hydrogen specialist, thinks otherwise. After several years of research that included tracking down surviving pieces of the Hindenburg’s cotton skin, Bain says that the on-board hydrogen certainly fueled the fire, but played no role in igniting it. The culprit, he says, was the highly flammable cellulose-doping compound used to coat the fabric covering and make it taut.

Nonetheless, there are some who speculate that hydrogen is simply too dangerous to ever be safely used for cars. Peter Voyentzie of Danbury, Connecticut’s Energy Research Corporation, which makes large stationary fuel cell power plants, is skeptical about automotive applications. “Hydrogen is a strange beast,” he says. “It’s the smallest molecule, and it leaks out of everything. You also can’t see it burn. In a car, it has to remain stable through collisions and constant agitation. That’s a lot to expect.”

But hydrogen may still be safer than gasoline. When spilled, it simply escapes upward instead of puddling and presenting an ignition hazard. It’s odorless, its flame is invisible, and it emits very little radiant heat. People standing next to a hydrogen fire might not even be aware it’s there. Even in diluted form, hydrogen will burn easily, but unless you’re in physical contact with the fire, it won’t hurt you. Remember, too, that fuel cell cars don’t burn the fuel, though a spark generated in a crash could set it off.

The safety of hydrogen storage tanks for cars is also a concern, with regard to auto accidents. Hydrogen’s safety problems shouldn’t be minimized, but they shouldn’t disqualify the fuel from consideration. Like gasoline, hydrogen can be dangerous. And, also like gasoline, we can learn to use it as safely as possible.

Empowering the Poor

Incredibly, 65 percent of the human population has never made a telephone call, and a third of the human race has no access to electricity or any other form of commercial energy. The global average per capita energy use for all countries is only one fifth that of the U.S. The disparity between the connected and the unconnected is deep and threatens to become even more pronounced over the next half century with world population expected to rise from the current 6.2 billion to nine billion people. Most of the population increase is going to take place in the developing world, where the poverty is concentrated.

Lack of access to energy, and especially electricity, is a key factor in perpetuating poverty around the world. Conversely, access to energy means more economic opportunity. In South Africa, for example, for every 100 households electrified, 10 to 20 new businesses are created. Electricity frees human labor from day-to-day survival tasks. Simply finding enough firewood or dung to warm a house or cook meals in resource poor countries can take hours out of each day. Electricity provides power to run farm equipment, operate small factories and craft shops, and light homes, schools and businesses.

Making the shift to a hydrogen energy regime, using renewable resources and technologies to produce the hydrogen, and creating distributed generation energy webs that can connect communities all over the world, holds great promise for helping to lift billions of people out of poverty. Narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots requires, among other things, narrowing the gap between the connected and the unconnected. It also presents a significant challenge: developing and harnessing renewable energy sources for hydrogen in countries with no current infrastructure.

As the price of fuel cells and accompanying appliances continues to plummet with new innovations and economies of scale, they will become far more broadly available, just as was the case with transistor radios, computers and cellular phones. The goal ought to be to provide stationary fuel cells for every neighborhood and village in the developing world. Villages can install renewable energy technologies to produce their own electricity, using some of it to separate hydrogen from water and store it for subsequent use in fuel cells. In rural areas, where commercial power lines have not yet been extended, because it is too expensive, stand-alone fuel cells can provide energy quickly and cheaply. After enough fuel cells have been leased or purchased and installed, mini-energy grids can connect urban neighborhoods as well as rural villages into expanding energy networks.

The HEW can be built organically and spread as the distributed generation becomes more widely used. The larger hydrogen fuel cells have the additional advantage of producing pure drinking water as a byproduct, a significant consideration in village communities around the world where access to clean water is often a critical concern.

Distributed generation associations (DGAs) could be established throughout the developing world. Cooperatives, lending institutions and local governments might then view distributed generation energy webs as a core strategy for building sustainable, self-sufficient communities. Breaking the cycle of dependency and despair, becoming truly “empowered,” starts with access to and control over energy.

National governments and world lending institutions need to be pressured to help provide both financial and logistical support for the creation of a hydrogen energy infrastructure. Equally important, new laws will need to be enacted to make it easier to adopt distributed generation. Public and private companies will have to be required to guarantee distributed generation operators access to the main power grid and the right to sell energy back or trade it for other services. And new investment will be needed to confront the remaining technical problems, which are daunting but certainly solvable.

The fossil-fuel era brought with it a highly centralized energy infrastructure, and an accompanying economic infrastructure, that favored the few over the many. Now, on the cusp of the Hydrogen Age, it is possible to imagine a decentralized energy infrastructure, enabling individuals, communities and countries to claim their independence, while accepting responsibility for their interdependence as well.

In the early 1990s, at the dawn of the Internet era, the demand for “universal access” to information and to communications became the rallying cry for a generation of activists, consumers, citizens and public leaders. Today, as we begin our journey into the Hydrogen Era, the demand for universal access to energy ought to inspire a new generation of activists to help lay the groundwork for establishing sustainable communities.

Were all individuals and communities in the world to become the producers of their own energy, the result would be a dramatic shift in the configuration of power. Local peoples would be less subject to the will of far-off centers of power. Communities would be able to produce many of their own goods and services and consume the fruits of their own labor locally. But, because they would also be connected via the worldwide communications and energy webs, they would be able to share their unique commercial skills, products and services with other communities around the planet.

By redistributing power broadly to everyone, it is possible to establish the conditions for a truly equitable sharing of the Earth’s bounty. This is the essence of the politics of re-globalization from the bottom up.

Looking Forward

A more sustainable and equitable future made possible by a worldwide hydrogen web looms on the horizon, but it is as yet woefully unrealized. California, the incubator of the American hydrogen industry, has only two hydrogen filling stations, and there are less than 12 in the entire U.S. There are only a few fuel-cell cars, all million-dollar prototypes. Although the auto industry is making rapid progress in developing automotive fuel cells, it has lobbied heavily against fuel cell-enabling clean car legislation, particularly in California. A lawsuit filed by an industry association has delayed by two years implementation of a law that would have required clean car fleets in California by 2003.

At the same time, incredible progress is being made. The federal FreedomCAR program, designed to promote fuel-cell vehicles, was announced in January 2002. The government’s efforts could be hijacked by big energy concerns (see sidebar), but federal funding for hydrogen research has won qualified support from environmentalists. And much is happening on the state level, too. Ohio, for example, just opened its first hydrogen pumping station, and plans three more as part of a $100 million, three-year fuel-cell initiative announced by Governor Bob Taft. Last April, Governor John Engler of Michigan announced a plan called NextEnergy that includes creation of a 700-acre state-owned campus that will be a tax-free high-tech center for hydrogen innovation. Carmakers are also making commitments: Honda, for instance, says it will have 20 to 30 fuel-cell vehicles on the road for testing purposes in the next two years.

Although national marketing of home-based fuel cells for decentralized power generation is planned by Plug Power and other companies, there are remaining cost problems (see sidebar) and many other questions remain. Will we fill up our hydrogen cars at home-based systems, developed by Stuart Energy, Avalence and others, or will the corner gas station become the corner hydrogen station? From what energy sources will hydrogen be made? Agreement on the broad outlines of a national and international hydrogen infrastructure is desperately needed. Will the new regime be imposed from the top down, or the bottom up?

The hydrogen economy is within sight. How fast we get there will depend on how committed we are to weaning ourselves off of oil and the other fossil fuels. What are we waiting for?

JEREMY RIFKIN is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and the author of such works as The End of Work, The Biotech Century and The Age of Access. His latest book is The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth (Tarcher Putnam), from which this article is excerpted.



#27 Jay the Avenger

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Posted 06 November 2004 - 05:03 PM

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How Hydrogen Can Save America

The cost of oil dependence has never been so clear. What had long been largely an environmental issue has suddenly become a deadly serious strategic concern. Oil is an indulgence we can no longer afford, not just because it will run out or turn the planet into a sauna, but because it inexorably leads to global conflict. Enough. What we need is a massive, Apollo-scale effort to unlock the potential of hydrogen, a virtually unlimited source of power. The technology is at a tipping point. Terrorism provides political urgency. Consumers are ready for an alternative. From Detroit to Dallas, even the oil establishment is primed for change. We put a man on the moon in a decade; we can achieve energy independence just as fast. Here's how.

By Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall

Four decades ago, the United States faced a creeping menace to national security. The Soviet Union had lobbed the first satellite into space in 1957. Then, on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off in Vostok 1 and became the first human in orbit.

President Kennedy understood that dominating space could mean the difference between a country able to defend itself and one at the mercy of its rivals. In a May 1961 address to Congress, he unveiled Apollo - a 10-year program of federal subsidies aimed at "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." The president announced the goal, Congress appropriated the funds, scientists and engineers put their noses to the launchpad, and - lo and behold - Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface eight years later.

The country now faces a similarly dire threat: reliance on foreign oil. Just as President Kennedy responded to Soviet space superiority with a bold commitment, President Bush must respond to the clout of foreign oil by making energy independence a national priority. The president acknowledged as much by touting hydrogen fuel cells in January's State of the Union address. But the $1.2 billion he proposed is a pittance compared to what's needed. Only an Apollo-style effort to replace hydrocarbons with hydrogen can liberate the US to act as a world leader rather than a slave to its appetite for petroleum.

Tronic Studio
Tronic Studio
Money can do more than ease the pain of lost income. It can turn oil companies into the hydrogen economy's standard bearers.

Once upon a time, America's oil addiction was primarily an environmental issue. Hydrocarbons are dirty - befouling the air and water, possibly shifting the climate, and causing losses of biodiversity and precious coastal real estate. In those terms, the argument is largely political, one of environmental cleanliness against economic godliness. The horror of 9/11 changed that forever. Buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center was the myth that America can afford the dire costs of international oil politics. The price of the nation's reliance on crude has included '70s-style economic shocks, Desert Storm-like military adventures, strained relationships with less energy-hungry allies, and now terror on our shores.

George W. Bush arrived in Washington, DC, as a Texan with deep roots in the oil business. In the days following September 11, however, he transformed himself into the National Security President. Today, his ambition to protect the United States from emerging threats overshadows his industry ties. By throwing his power behind hydrogen, Bush would be gambling that, rather than harming Big Oil, he could revitalize the moribund industry. At the same time, he might win support among environmentalists, a group that has felt abandoned by this White House.

According to conventional wisdom, there are two ways for the US to reduce dependence on foreign oil: increase domestic production or decrease demand. Either way, though, the country would remain hostage to overseas producers. Consider the administration's ill-fated plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For all the political wrangling and backlash, that area's productivity isn't likely to offset declining output from larger US oil fields, let alone increase the total supply from domestic sources. As for reducing demand, the levers available are small and ineffectual. The average car on the road is nine years old, so even dramatic increases in fuel efficiency today won't head off dire consequences tomorrow. Moreover, the dynamism at the heart of the US economy depends on energy. Growth and consumption are inextricably intertwined.

There's only one way to insulate the US from the corrosive power of oil, and that's to develop an alternative energy resource that's readily available domestically. Looking at the options - coal, natural gas, wind, water, solar, and nuclear - there's only one thing that can provide a wholesale substitute for foreign oil within a decade: hydrogen. Hydrogen stores energy more effectively than current batteries, burns twice as efficiently in a fuel cell as gasoline does in an internal combustion engine (more than making up for the energy required to produce it), and leaves only water behind. It's plentiful, clean, and - critically - capable of powering cars. Like manned space flight in 1961, hydrogen power is proven but primitive, a technology ripe for acceleration and then deployment. (For that, thank the Apollo program itself, which spurred the development of early fuel cells.)

Many observers view as inevitable the transition from an economy powered by fossil fuels to one based on hydrogen. But that view presupposes market forces that are only beginning to stir. Today, power from a fuel cell car engine costs 100 times more than power from its internal combustion counterpart; it'll take a lot of R&D to reduce that ratio. More daunting, the notion of fuel cell cars raises a chicken-and-egg question: How will a nationwide fueling infrastructure materialize to serve a fleet of vehicles that doesn't yet exist and will take decades to reach critical mass? Even hydrogen's boosters look forward to widespread adoption no sooner than 30 to 50 years from now. That's three to five times too long.

Adopting Kennedy's 10-year time frame may sound absurdly optimistic, but it's exactly the kick in the pants needed to jolt the US out of its crippling complacency when it comes to energy. A decade is long enough to make a serious difference but short enough that most Americans will see results within their lifetimes. The good news is that the technical challenges are issues of engineering rather than science. That means money can solve them.

How much money? How about the amount spent to put a man on the moon: $100 billion in today's dollars. With that investment, the nation could shift the balance of power from foreign oil producers to US energy consumers within a decade. By 2013, a third of all new cars sold could be hydrogen-powered, 15 percent of the nation's gas stations could pump hydrogen, and the US could get more than half its energy from domestic sources, putting independence within reach. All that's missing is a national commitment to make it happen.

It'd be easy - too easy - to misspend $100 billion. So the White House needs a plan. The strategy must take advantage of existing infrastructure and strengthen forces propelling the nation toward hydrogen while simultaneously removing obstacles. There are five objectives:

1. Solve the hydrogen fuel-tank problem.

2. Encourage mass production of fuel cell vehicles.

3. Convert the nation's fueling infrastructure to hydrogen.

4. Ramp up hydrogen production.

5. Mount a public campaign to sell the hydrogen economy.

By pursuing all five at once, the government can create a self-sustaining cycle of supply and demand that gains momentum over the coming decade and supplants the existing energy market in the decades that follow. Rather than waiting to build a hydrogen infrastructure from scratch, the US can start building the new fuel economy immediately by piggybacking on existing petroleum-based industries. Once customers are demanding and producers are supplying, there will be time to create a cleaner, more efficient hydrogen-centric infrastructure that runs on market forces alone.

1. Solve the hydrogen fuel-tank problem
The fuel cell, essentially a battery with a replaceable energy storage medium, isn't new. The basic ideas were in place by the mid-1800s, and the first proton-exchange membrane fuel cell - the type most practical for use in automobiles - was built by General Electric in the early '60s. Unlike a combustion engine, in which exploding gas pushes pistons, a fuel cell engine strips electrons from hydrogen and uses the resulting electrical current to power a motor. Then it combines the remaining hydrogen ions (protons) with oxygen to form water, the only byproduct. (A hybrid electrical engine is something else: a gasoline engine that powers a battery.)

In 1993, Canadian fuel cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems began using the technology in buses, which could accommodate huge first-generation hydrogen engines and fuel tanks. The engines have since become smaller, but carrying enough hydrogen for 400 miles of driving - the range consumers generally expect - remains a challenge.

The Bush administration should spend $15 billion to solve this problem. The main question is whether to carry the fuel in gas, liquid, or solid form, each of which offers its own advantages and disadvantages. Until the industry settles on a standard, the market won't support mass production or ubiquitous filling stations.

The simplest option is gaseous hydrogen. The problem: It takes up a lot of room, so the gas must be compressed, but this requires a tank capable of withstanding high pressure. To carry enough fuel for 400 miles of travel, the tank would need to withstand 10,000 pounds per square inch - 50 times the pressure in a combustion engine's cylinders - and to keep it from bursting in an impact, it would need to tolerate 20,000 pounds per square inch. More research is needed to find materials strong enough to do the job yet light enough to carry and cheap enough to mass-produce.

Liquid hydrogen also has pros and cons. It exerts far less pressure on the tank, but it must be cooled to -423 degrees Fahrenheit at the pump and kept that way in the vehicle. This refrigeration demands a significant amount of energy, and insulating the tank can multiply its size. What's more, even with the best insulation, as much as 4 percent of the liquid evaporates daily, creating pressure that can only be relieved by bleeding off the vapor. As a result, a car left at the airport for two weeks would lose half its fuel. Scientists need to find a way to eliminate or utilize this boil-off.

In the long run, the most promising approach is to fill the tank with a solid material that soaks up hydrogen like a sponge at fill-up and releases it during drive time. Currently, the options include lithium hydride, sodium borohydride, and an emerging class of ultraporous nanotech materials. Unlike gaseous hydrogen, these substances can pack a lot of power into a small space of arbitrary shape. And unlike liquid hydrogen, they can be kept at room temperature. On the other hand, energy is required to infuse the solid medium with hydrogen, and in some cases very high temperatures are required to get the fuel back out, exacting a huge toll in efficiency. Also, filling the tank can take far more time than pumping gasoline. Government money could bridge the gap between today's experiments and a viable solution.

2. Encourage mass production of fuel cell vehicles
Once the storage problem has been solved, carmakers should be encouraged to gear up for mass production of fuel cell vehicles.

Detroit is already moving in that direction. To date, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors have spent roughly $2 billion developing fuel cell cars, buses, and trucks, with the first products due to hit the market this year. Ford chair William Clay Ford Jr. has proclaimed that fuel cells will "finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine."

To make sure the transition doesn't take another century, though, the Bush administration should allocate $10 billion to help automakers manufacture fuel cells efficiently and cheaply, either on their own (like GM) or through contracts with government-approved fuel cell developers. Funding should be contingent on the companies adhering to a strict schedule for bringing hydrogen-based vehicles to market (coordinated, of course, with the schedule for bringing fueling stations online).

A mandatory portion should be set aside for marketing. Detroit will face a tremendous hurdle of consumer acceptance, and it should take full advantage of Madison Avenue's skills to convince the public that fuel cell cars aren't just viable, but desirable. This isn't a fantasy. Toyota's Prius, the first mass-produced gasoline/electric hybrid car, has sold more than 100,000 units since its 1997 debut, proving that the public will embrace a radically different automobile.

3. Convert the fueling infrastructure to hydrogen
Of course, no one will drive a hydrogen-powered car off the lot unless they're confident they'll be able to get fuel when and where they need it. That's why the Bush administration must focus on infrastructure as well as vehicles.

Like the car companies, oil producers have already taken steps toward an oil-free future. Over the past 15 years, corporations like Shell and Exxon have ceded their leadership in oil production to a dozen state-owned enterprises in countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, and Norway. Instead they've focused on adding value farther down the supply chain by refining crude into gasoline and distributing and selling it through filling stations. They know they could play the same role in a hydrogen economy, which is why Shell and BP have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in hydrogen storage and production technology. Indeed, BP, formerly British Petroleum, has rebranded itself Beyond Petroleum.

The major oil companies are already extracting hydrogen from gasoline for industrial uses at nine refinery complexes throughout the United States. With a little push, these plants could serve as hubs for a nascent hydrogen-distribution network.

Converting filling stations is bound to cost billions of dollars over several decades. But it should cost relatively little to retrofit clusters of stations in proximity to both a hydrogen-producing refinery and a population center where fuel cell vehicles are sold. Oil companies could meet initial demand by trucking hydrogen from refineries to these stations. As the number of fuel cell vehicles on the road rises, stations that aren't served by refinery hubs could install processors, called reformers, that use electricity to extract hydrogen from gasoline or water. The White House should ask for $5 billion - roughly $30,000 for each of the nation's 176,000 filling stations - to get the ball rolling.

In the long run, a pipeline piggybacking on existing natural gas pipelines might deliver most of the fuel, either from high-volume plants or more widely distributed facilities. The administration should set aside $10 billion for incentives like interest-free loans to encourage oil companies to construct a national hydrogen pipeline. It might also grant five-to-ten-year monopoly rights to pipeline builders.

Hydrogen's fuel-efficiency offers immediate benefits to transportation companies that maintain their own vehicles and use them for limited, predictable distances. In fact, FedEx and UPS plan to phase in fuel-cell trucks over the next five years. The Bush administration should take advantage of this synergy between early adopters and the national interest by offering $10 billion in tax breaks to companies that invest in hydrogen-powered fleets. Also, in regions served by a refinery hub, $5 billion should be allocated for fuel cell police cars, ambulances, maintenance trucks, and other municipal vehicles. The military is another sensible target, since 60 percent of its logistics budget is devoted to transporting gasoline.

The critical need to build infrastructure along with vehicles brings to mind an earlier Apollo-like initiative: Eisenhower's National Defense Highway Act. As an officer during World War II, Ike struggled to move troops across the US and saw how Germany's highways conferred a military advantage. Once in the Oval Office, he called for $300 billion in today's dollars to build an interstate highway system. Funded by a gas tax, that program's dramatic success proved that national security can motivate federal infrastructure projects on a grand scale.

4. Ramp up hydrogen production
But where will the hydrogen come from? Ironically, while hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, it rarely appears in its pure form. It must be extracted from substances that contain it, like fossil fuels and water. The problem is that the extraction itself requires power. Currently, the least expensive method is a process known as steam reforming, in which natural gas reacts chemically with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Far preferable would be to use carbon-free resources like solar, wind, and hydropower to produce electricity for electrolysis, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen would make renewable energy practical, acting as a storage medium for the modest amounts of energy such resources produce. Wind power, especially, lends itself to this sort of use. This and other renewables should receive $10 billion as a seed for long-term development.

This suggests a role for a clean, efficient, and much neglected energy source: nuclear. Like the fuel cell, the nuclear generator is a technology ripe for exploitation. Unlike the solid-core reactors of the past, pebble-bed modular reactors such as the one at Koeberg, South Africa, don't get hot enough to risk melting down. Koeberg uses small graphite-covered uranium balls rather than plutonium rods, and the reactor's cooled by helium rather than water. This new design is so efficient, it might make nuclear competitive with coal and oil. In any event, the nuclear power industry is in dire need of research for everything, from generation to waste treatment. Thus, $10 billion should be allocated to developing and securing nuclear technology that can power the hydrogen revolution.

Nuclear power will serve as a stopgap, enabling the US to achieve energy independence while allowing wind, solar, and hydropower a chance to mature. Given the choice between powering the carbon-free hydrogen economy with fossil fuels or nuclear energy, even Greenpeace might embrace nuke plants as the lesser evil.

As all the various subsidies kindle a self-sustaining economy, they should be tapered and the money shunted to the other major power in the conversion from oil to hydrogen: electric utilities. Within a decade, outlays to power companies should be aimed at connecting hydrogen pipelines to the power stations.

5. Mount a Public Campaign To Sell the Hydrogen Economy
With a growing federal deficit and a stagnant economy, this might seem like a singularly bad time to unleash an immense tide of new subsidies. And let's be honest: Even framed as a national security issue, a $100 billion proposal won't go down easily on Capitol Hill or in Peoria. This is why the Bush administration's campaign to sell the hydrogen economy must be even more vigorous than its campaign to sell the war against Iraq.

Financially, the case is compelling. One hundred billion dollars is less than a quarter of what the federal government plans to spend annually on defense within five years. A 5 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax - less than the seasonal variation in gasoline prices - would pay for part of it. For the rest, the government could issue "H Bonds." Like Liberty Bonds during World Wars I and II, "securities for security" would give citizens a way to take part in the cause while providing an attractive investment. Like war bonds, they could be promoted by celebrities, sold by Boy and Girl Scouts, and paid for via payroll deduction plans.

Convincing Congress will take all the finesse the administration can muster, but some states are already pushing the hydrogen agenda with tax credits, research funding, and other policies to create jobs in fuel cell manufacture. "We want to collaborate with the federal government and industry to make California a leader in hydrogen," says Alan Lloyd, chair of California's Air Resources Board, an EPA suboffice in a state where SUVs sport SAVE THE EARTH bumper stickers. (The city of Los Angeles bought its first fuel-cell vehicle from Honda last December.) States that foster hydrogen technology companies will be rewarded with tax revenue from sales to Europe and Asia, which are also looking into it.

Even before he sells the plan to Congress, the president will have to sell it to the oil and auto industries. After all, hydrogen power is a potent threat to their current business, and they own the fueling infrastructure and manufacturing capacity necessary to bring that power to market. The prospect of massive subsidies will help; these industries are squeezed between shrinking profits and rising costs. But the money can do more than relieve their pain. It can set them on a sustainable course for the future, turning the biggest obstacles to the hydrogen economy into its standard bearers.

Petroleum suppliers and auto manufacturers alike understand the need to disentangle their business models from crude. By most estimates, the worldwide oil supply has nearly stopped growing. Thanks to new discoveries, the total reserve increased by 56 percent between 1980 and 1990 but only 1.4 percent between 1990 and 2000. Pessimistic geologists argue that production will begin to decline as early as 2006, while optimists point at 2040. What's more, it's now clear that oil consumption is at least partly to blame for global warming, prompting ever-louder calls for alternatives. It shouldn't take much persuasion to convince the oil and car industries that the most profitable course is to adapt to hydrogen sooner with government money rather than later without.

The most important market over the next decade, of course, is the US consumer. The administration should allocate $25 billion to persuade Americans to buy fuel cell cars and invest in hydrogen technology. This budget would pay for a $2,000 tax rebate on vehicle purchases, and fund local incentives such as preferential parking, freeway lanes, and free registration for fuel cell cars. At least $1 billion a year - equal to Nike's 2001 advertising budget - should be devoted to public-service announcements, posters, lectures, contests, and other ways of sending the message that achieving energy independence through hydrogen is a patriotic duty.

There are good reasons to wonder whether any government initiative, even one that's critical to national security, can bring about such a radical change. Federal energy programs don't have much of a track record, and past efforts to promote hydrogen itself - after the oil crises of 1973, 1978, and 1980, for instance - have failed to take root.

These attempts foundered mainly because the US continued to have access to cheap oil. Energy independence briefly became top priority after OPEC raised prices from $3 to $12 per barrel between 1973 and 1975, but momentum dissipated as the crisis ended and prices fell. As a result, the political will to make tough energy decisions vanished. The threat to national security means that politics no longer stands in the way: Better to make hard choices today than send your children off to fight for oil tomorrow.

Earlier initiatives were also hampered by primitive technology. Today, however, fuel cells have reached the point where hydrogen is a credible substitute for oil. Outdoor-product maker Coleman recently released the first commercial fuel cell product, an emergency power generator for home use, and large fuel cells have been installed as backups in office buildings throughout the country. Hydrogen-powered buses are already operating in Toronto and Chicago, and soon will be in London, Madrid, and Hamburg. Iceland has embarked on an ambitious effort to convert its public transit and fishing fleets to hydrogen. The most encouraging sign is the investment by oil and car companies, not to mention venture capitalists.

If President Bush can implement this program, or something comparably aggressive, by 2013, all major car companies will sell fuel cell vehicles, and several new manufacturers will probably emerge to produce specialty hydrogen-powered items like sports cars and SUVs. Filling stations in the nation's six largest cities will carry hydrogen as well as gasoline; many will offer only the new fuel. Some refineries will be selling more hydrogen than gasoline, measured by both dollars and volume.

Imagine how the hydrogen economy will change geopolitics. OPEC will no longer be a factor in foreign policy. Relations with oil-producing nations will be based on common interests. The US will be free to promote democracy in countries like Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar will be dismantled and naval forces in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf sent home.

Even at that point, the transition will be far from complete. It will take decades to get every conventional car off the road, and even longer before hydrogen can be mass-produced using clean energy. In the long run, automobile fuel cells themselves might be tied to the grid, making it possible for vehicles to feed power into the system rather than simply consume energy. That is, electrical meters might run backward some of the time. Futurist Amory Lovins envisions a peer-to-peer energy network in which spot power is distributed to users from the nearest source, be it a utility station or a station wagon. Such a system would make the grid more efficient and power less expensive. This cheaper energy could be sold in bulk to businesses looking to cut costs, creating further momentum for the new fuel system.

In time, US fuel cell and hydrogen-extraction technology will provide enormous opportunities for developing nations like China and India, which will be the fastest-growing consumers of energy in coming decades. Because they don't have an adequate petroleum-based infrastructure today, these nations will be quick to take full advantage of hydrogen, leapfrogging developed countries. Cheaper than oil, the new fuel will empower poor countries, reducing their trade deficits and security threats.

The stakes are higher today than they were in Sputnik's wake. Unlike space travel, energy independence bears directly on US self-determination. The dangerous turmoil in the Middle East, the growing national security budget, the promise of technology that needs only a financial push - all these things make this the right moment to launch an Apollo-scale commitment to hydrogen power. The fate of the republic depends on it.

10 YEARS OF ENERGY INNOVATION

1995

General Motors rolls out an electric car, the Impact (later refined into the EV1), at the Greater LA Auto Show.

GE introduces the H System, a natural gas-burning turbine that uses gas, steam, and heat-recovery technologies.

1997
In Japan, Toyota unveils the Prius, the first mass-produced gas-electric hybrid.

1999
Chicago spends $8 million installing solar panels in old industrial sites to light municipal buildings and parks.

2000
The South African company Eskom begins construction on the first pebble-bed modular reactor, a safer kind of nuclear plant.

2001
Clean Energy Systems develops a power plant that runs on natural gas and releases steam and carbon dioxide.

2002
Honda leases the first of five fuel cell cars to Los Angeles. The 80-horsepower FCX's only emission: water.

Ireland approves the world's largest offshore wind park, 200 turbines on a sandbank 15 miles long and a mile wide.

Peter Schwartz (peter_schwartz@gbn.com) is a partner in the Monitor Group and chair of Global Business Network, a scenario-planning firm. Doug Randall (doug_randall@gbn.com) is senior practitioner at GBN. Schwartz, a former futurist for Shell Oil, is an investor in two companies developing hydrogen power technologies.

Copyright © 1993-2004 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1994-2003 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.



#28 eternaltraveler

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Posted 06 November 2004 - 06:43 PM

These articles say nothing about where you are supposed to get the hydrogen. Hydrogen is very abundant, unfortunately on earth it comes in the form of water. Water is burnt hydrogen. Water is ash. There is very little difference in making water back into hydrogen from making carbon dioxide back into coal. Hydrogen today is generated with fossil fuels for the most part.

Hydrogen is NOT a source of energy. It requires energy intensive means to produce it.

Find another source of energy. Hydrogen isn't it.

#29 Jay the Avenger

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Posted 06 November 2004 - 07:00 PM

These articles say nothing about where you are supposed to get the hydrogen.


If you really think that, then I suggest rereading the articles again. The word 'renewable' is used 15 times throughout both articles.

You never read them in the first place, have you? ;)

One of many quotes on the renewable-issue:

Hydrogen would make renewable energy practical, acting as a storage medium for the modest amounts of energy such resources produce. Wind power, especially, lends itself to this sort of use. This and other renewables should receive $10 billion as a seed for long-term development.


I've spent the last two days researching this issue.

In the end, hydrogen will be created out of renewable resources. This has been the whole idea behind hydrogen ever since its conception.

The use of fossil fuels to generate hydrogen will only be used as an intermediary step towards a fullblown hydrogen economy.

Hydrogen is obviously the answer to the energy-problem. Anybody who thinks otherwise, should spend more time doing his research, IMO.

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#30 eternaltraveler

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Posted 06 November 2004 - 07:31 PM

If you really think that, then I suggest rereading the articles again. The word 'renewable' is used 15 times throughout both articles.

You never read them in the first place, have you? ;)


Oh, I read them. They are nothing but feel good political crap. They read similar to articles I have read that say that hemp is the solution to all of life's problems.
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