The Hydrogen Economy book read in 5 minutes

FOETOne thing certain, the way we used to produce and consume energy won’t last forever and should dramatically change. Nobody can pretend knowing how the Energy industry will evolve. Having a vision, even partial and not perfect, and sharing it is key to assess and make policy and business choices. Will the energy world be steered by shale gas, nuclear, Energy Efficiency or hydrogen?


Visionaries in energy are numerous (Jeremy Rifkin, David Owen, Jean-Marc Jancovici, Alain Grandjean, and so on). With his Third Industrial Revolution theory, Jeremy Rifkin is certainly the current most popular.


Here is a very good summary of Jeremy Rifkin’s book, called The Hydrogen Economy, made by Pierre-Etienne GIRARDOT, working at the European think-tank, The Shift Project, and kindly translated in English by Sabine PERRIER. Enjoy!


Rifkin conducts his presentation by describing firstly our current society as a world in decline, which will be replaced according to him by the hydrogen civilization of which he presents a committed vision.

1. An endangered world

The death of oil
Rifkin provides here a classical analysis to show that we will need one day or another to manage, and certainly quicker than we think, without fossil fuels.
He therefore follows from the fact that the peak production per capita has been reached in 1979, justifying an impossible standardization of the world living standards to the level of the current American standards.
In addition, he criticizes the fuzzy figures (reserves, resources…) voluntarily presented by the producing countries and the oil companies to preserve their interests and by hiding the truth: the oil production, while writing the book, was 2 times higher than the discoveries.

International tensions
Since the Second World War where the Allies won partly because they controlled 86 % of the oil world offer, the geopolitics arose around the necessity to secure the energy supply. Many international tensions then crystallized around these issues, as attested by the Iraq war.
According to Rifkin, these tensions will continue to escalate mainly because of the non-homogeneous distribution of the resources: the Middle East owns more than 2/3 of these resources and will have the final say.
But, Rifkin draws our attention on the cultural divide that separates these Islamic countries and the Western world. Indeed, the first ones have a cultural model that links intrinsically theology and politics. On the contrary, the Christian model distinguishes the city of men and the city of God, thus separating the science of the divine to provide it with a utilitarian and Promethean spirit, which explains according to Rifkin the success of the Western world during the 2 industrial revolutions.
Rifkin interprets the current Islamization movement as a return to roots of the Arab world after the failure of these countries to fit into the Western model. The return of faith in the political circles is mixed with a vengeful spirit that sees oil as an equalizer mean.

Vulnerable networks
The September 11 attacks allow Rifkin to underline how much our model based on the concentration and the centralized power is vulnerable and lacks flexibility to face the new challenges. The United States already spend more to support their interests in the Middle East than they receive (in terms of oil value).
He is also giving thought to the robustness of the farming system, which is completely dependent on hydrocarbon oils and the electrical network, which is highly centralized.

The fall of civilizations
Rifkin reviews the history of civilizations and pinpoints that they have always aimed at collecting and controlling the energy to benefit humanity.
However, the available energy is always converted into disorganized energy, creating thus an entropic debt from which the GDP could be a good measure. A civilization, like any living creature, is nourished by negative entropy: it pumps the order of its environment…until the latter represents nothing more than chaos.
Climate change is leading us dangerously towards a situation where, like Rome at the end of the Empire, we would spend more energy to maintain the infrastructures than we could draw from our environment. This is merely constantly the cause for the fall of civilizations.

2. The solution: the Hydrogen civilization

A logical and controlled solution
Since the on-set of the industrial age, the evolution went towards the direction of a constant decarbonisation of the energy (the ratio H/C has been decreasing proportionately) with a dematerialisation (solid, liquid and gas forms). It therefore makes sense for our civilization to take the final step: use hydrogen as Jules Verne imagined it in 1874 in The Mysterious Island.
Rifkin warns against the reservations that are linked to hydrogen since the zeppelin Hindenburg accident. Indeed, we currently have the technical means to ensure its safe use.

Tomorrow’s applications

  • A decentralized production

It is important to point out that hydrogen is a vector and not an energy source. In Rifkin’s vision, we need to produce it, not like it is currently done with the methane steam cracking (a transition solution could be capturing the CO2 produced) but thanks to water electrolysis.
The necessary electricity wouldn’t come from centralized systems. On the contrary, he calls for a distributed generation, that would come from small production systems (through PV panels for example) installed in households.

  • The electric car

According to Rifkin, this is the future major change in the automotive sector and in the industrial sector in general. Indeed, most of the constructors are developing pilot projects working with a hydrogen battery (reaction H2 + ½ O2 = H2O). However, these are still expensive because their production hasn’t reached the critical volume to benefit from mass effects.
The electric cars also provide a very promising electricity storage solution since 96 % of the time, they are left in the garage.

  • The HEW (Hydrogen Energy Web)

Rifkin suggests an original model where the hydrogen would circulate in a distributed network where producers and consumers are mixed. The energy needs would then be met thanks a peer-to-peer sharing system. The big energy companies should then re-examine their business model in order to transform themselves into coordinators and service providers.
Rifkin justifies this viewpoint by explaining that all the industrial revolutions arise at the crossroads of a new communication system and a new energy system. Therefore the third industrial revolution is naturally expected to circulate hydrogen with the same freedom as information on the WEB.

The democratization of Energy
The shift towards hydrogen helps to reduce the gap between the populations connected to the electrical network and those who may not have this opportunity. Rifkin argues in favour of what he calls the “empowerment” of these populations, which holds the double meaning of providing an electrical power and means to live.

3. The “Biosphere-politics”

Finally Rifkin considers that the generation “ .com” will be set to get rid of the Darwinian notion of safety that led to the birth of the geopolitics concept. Instead, the feeling of safety will come from the access to the network and to social relationships. In this way, the awareness of the finitude and vulnerability of our environment (after Hiroshima, the global warming…) must give rise to the “biosphere-politics” that is committed to retaining the symbiotic relationship that exists between man and its environment. The idea is then to “think globally, but act locally“ (René Dubos).


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Sources: The Shift Project, Jeremy Rifkin, Echotrad 


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