Sierra Magazine


Hydrogen Hype?

The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth
by Jeremy Rifkin (Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, $14.95)

The quest for an ideal energy source has ironically moved from a very complex element—uranium—to the simplest—hydrogen. With nuclear power having failed to fulfill prophecies of boundless energy from "atoms for peace," the gas is being touted as the latest clean, inexhaustible font of energy. Indeed, very word "hydrogen" has become a utopian mantra for some energy advocates, not all of them starry-eyed futurists. Even that famed acolyte of big oil, George W. Bush, supports hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

Problem is, hydrogen doesn’t create energy. It merely stores it, like a battery. In a basic chemistry course you stick bare wires from a battery into water, and hydrogen bubbles off one of them through electrolysis. Trap your hydrogen in a test tube, light a match to it and poof, you get a nifty explosion. Run hydrogen through a modern fuel cell and it generates an electric current—but it’s merely recycling the energy that pulled it from the water in the first place. Rifkin explains this clearly, which makes it surprising he’s so enthusiastic.

It’s also surprising because this prescient social critic is known for exposés of new technologies like genetic engineering. His strength as a critic may explain why more than two-thirds of his Hydrogen Economy is not about hydrogen at all, but rather a fact-packed indictment of our petroleum addiction. Among the frightening observations: If China used as much oil per capita as the United States, "it would need to consume 81 million barrels of oil a day—that’s 10 million more barrels than the entire [daily] world oil production in 1997." Even without such consumption, we must find replacements for this finite resource, Rifkin convincingly says, using oil-industry data to show that the supply could peak by 2010.

Unfortunately, he makes a much stronger case against oil than for hydrogen, presenting a rather vague outline of how the gas would usher in a decarbonized epoch. Nor does he reckon thoroughly enough with the possible costs, inefficiencies, or environmental problems a massive retooling for hydrogen might entail in R&D, pipelines, filling stations, or the manufacture of fuel cells.

The basic idea of harnessing hydrogen is not new. As Rifkin tells us, it was used as early as 1794 to float reconnaissance balloons during the French Revolution. Eminent 20th-century British scientist J. B. S. Haldane proposed using electricity from windmills to electrolyze water when the wind spun out surplus power. In calm weather, the gases would explosively recombine in combustion engines turning dynamos.

Haldane’s idea, then, was to store power. But since 25 percent of electrical energy is lost in electrolysis, it only makes sense to produce hydrogen when generators are churning out surplus energy. At other times, electricity would go straight to the power grid.

Rifkin’s basic energy blueprint is similar, though he advocates much smaller, decentralized grids, with thousands of wind and solar generators. But he assigns a far greater role to hydrogen than it seems to merit. For example, he describes a photovoltaic system whose electricity is "fed into an electrolyzer . . .

After excess water vapor has been removed, the hydrogen gas is compressed to 5,000 pounds per square inch (psi), dried, and stored." But he fails to say how much energy is required for compressing, drying, and storing (beyond the 25 percent already lost), which raises the obvious question of why bother with hydrogen at all? Why not just feed the current into an electrical system? The answer? "Hydrogen gas from the facility is used to fuel the Ford Ranger trucks that have been modified to run on decarbonized fuel."

Here we get to an application where hydrogen may have an advantage: it’s portable. Thus it does have promise for use in motor vehicles. But that’s not enough for Rifkin, who also dreams of cars generating current with hydrogen: "If just a small percentage of drivers used their vehicles as power plants to sell energy back to the grid, most of the power plants in the country would be eliminated." So, not only transportation but the power supply would depend on cars toiling snugly at home after their daily crawl through sprawlopolis.

Little wonder some skeptics worry that hydrogen distracts from simpler energy solutions, such as fuel economy, mass transit, or a few thousand miles of strategically placed weatherstripping. At most, Rifkin shows that hydrogen is one of many tools, but not a panacea or the basis of a new world economy. Assigning it this more modest role lessens the temptation to invest too much capital—and hope—in yet another utopian fix.
—Bob Schildgen

At A Glance

Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky photographs by Art Wolfe, essays by Art Davidson
Wildlands Press, $75

From the jagged peaks of Mt. Fitzroy and Cerro Torre in Argentina to the swirling dunes of Namibia and the misty peaks of Huang Shan in China, a renowned outdoor photographer shows us his world.

New from Sierra Club Books

True Grizz: Glimpses of Fernie, Stahr, Easy, Dakota, and Other Real Bears in the Modern World by Douglas H. Chadwick, is a vivid description of the lives of individual grizzly bears wildlife biologist Chadwick has closely observed in their natural habitat for years.

Wild L.A.: A Celebration of the Natural Areas in and Around the City by James Lawrence. The wild beauty of Los Angeles is explored in photos and text that break the stereotype of the region as wasteland megalopolis. Now in paperback.

Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment by Hal Clifford exposes corporations’ conversion of the ski business into a land-ravaging front for developers. Now in paperback.

More Information
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