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Review of "The Hydrogen Economy" by Jeremy Rifkin

(copyright 2002, ISBN 1585421936 - hardcover; since re-issued in paperback as ISBN 1585422541)

Last updated 2003.12.29

Rating: Disappointing.


For a book titled "The Hydrogen Economy", only a small fraction of the 294 pages are actually dedicated to the subject. Things go well until page 8, laying out some history and relevant background, including these sentences: "Yet, it (hydrogen) rarely exists free floating in nature. Instead, it has to be extracted from natural sources." Sadly, it's downhill from here as Rifkin becomes enraptured of Peter Hoffman's term, "the forever fuel" (also the title of Hoffman's book).

Like other hydrogen advocates, Rifkin confuses the ubiquitous nature of hydrogen with a universal (democratic) ability to access it and use it. The catch is, the hydrogen is embedded in other substances (e.g., water) and a source of energy is required to extract it. Hydrogen fuel is an energy store, not an energy source. The crux of the hydrogen economy is simple; where does the initial energy come from to produce the hydrogen? This is the issue that hydrogen advocates, including Rifkin, lose sight of, and gloss over. In reality, the hydrogen end-user does not become an energy producer; they remain a consumer of the energy stored in the hydrogen.

In the new hydrogen energy paradigm, the new rulers will be those that control the production, storage and transport of hydrogen, which appears to be destined to be the multinational oil and gas conglomerates and those that control the allegedly peer-to-peer energy network, which will by and large be the electrical grid, or in other words, the electrical utilities.

By page 13, Rifkin departs from the hydrogen topic, and spends the following chapters covering oil depletion, history lessons on the industrial age, middle eastern politics and the politics of oil. By page 118, Rifkin comes to the realization that "the U.S. and west have been largely ambivalent about encouraging any kind of real democracy in the Gulf." In reality, the U.S. has a history of actively toppling democracies in the middle East, as they tend to be more concerned with the prosperity of their citizens than providing cheap and stable oil to the west.

Rifkin returns to hydrogen in Chapter 8, when he invokes fiction writer Jules Verne as an authority on science. Then he heads off into a recitation of irrelevant facts, anecdotes and history for another nine pages until he crashes into the reality that hydrogen is produced primarily from fossil fuels now and for the foreseeable future. While hydrogen is not a cost-effective transport fuel today, and will become more expensive as natural gas prices rise with increasing demand and decreasing North American production; and electrolysis is about four times more expensive as natural gas reforming as a hydrogen source; Rifkin blithely assumes these realities away, saying hydrogen from electrolysis will be competitive when wind generators are producing power at US$0.015 per kWh. However, this is a price that falls below the range of even wind power advocates, and is about a quarter of the cost of state of the art wind installations today.

On page 191, Rifkin invokes biomass as a source for producing electricity to electrolyze water into hydrogen. However, it will be more efficient to use biomass to produce ethanol and biodiesel as transport fuels. Biomass only makes sense for generating electricity in co-generation operations, where the heat is also captured for beneficial use (e.g. space and water heating), but Rifkin does not touch upon co-generation.

He continues to intermingle facts and fantasy related to distributed generation (DG) for a few more pages until he extrapolates it into using fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) as DG power sources. Just plug your FCEV into any electrical outlet and let it power the grid. This scenario conveniently ignores a few issues, such as the efficiency penalty implied by this approach. Take electricity to make hydrogen at 50% efficiency (best case for commercial electrolysis), transport it, store it and carry it around in road vehicles, then convert it back into electricity at 50% efficiency (better than best case for mobile fuel cells), then take 5% line losses to put electricity into the grid. Which is where we started, before going around this circle and losing 80% of the energy into the bargain. Why would we do this, when there are existing technologies for electrical energy storage that only have 20-30% losses (batteries, flywheels, pumped storage)?

And where are these grid connection points? They certainly can't be just any regular outlet. First off, the utilities have rules against powering the grid to ensure the safety of their workers who may be working on the wires and do not expect power to be present on a segment they have isolated from the authorized feed points. There are islanding and monitoring issues. A great deal of intelligence will need to be designed into such connection points to monitor, communicate and record information such as the need for supplemental power on the grid, the amount of power being supplied, who is supplying it and how they are to be compensated, and how much they are to be paid, based on the time at which the power was supplied, the amount of power being supplied at the time and the spot market price for electricity at that time. Clearly, a major investment will have to be made in infrastructure to support this concept, which leads us to the infrastructure investment chicken and egg problem, which Rifkin reaches about page 209.

This is essentially the same road as battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have already traveled to a dead end. The BEVs had the advantages of an existing infrastructure (municipal electrical grids) and a better efficiency story and the same drive train technology as being hailed as superior for FCEVs, except that fuel cells are being substituted for batteries. Range between recharges (refueling) isn't even any better for current FCEVs than has already been demonstrated by lower cost and more efficient advanced batteries (e.g. NiMH, Li-ion, Li-polymer, NiZn, Al-air).

Rifkin never addresses why FCEVs will succeed, technically or economically, where BEVs have not, with even greater hurdles (higher negative environmental impact, immature technology, lower efficiency, higher purchase and fuel costs).

Home-based electrolysers will rely primarily on the electrical grid to deliver the energy required to produce hydrogen locally. While this energy model might wreak havoc on the "oilogopoly", it does not address where the initial energy will come from to power the grid. There will be other impacts. The current tax structure in the U.S. used to support road construction and maintenance from road fuel taxes will collapse. The existing electrical grid will become Rifkin's Hydrogen Energy Web (HEW), because we want electricity for our homes and to power our zero-emissions vehicles. Hydrogen is just one of several possible storage mechanisms, and an expensive and inefficient one.

20 kW generators (the FCEV postulated by Rifkin) won't be supported by 1.5 kW (typical household) circuits. 20 kW is the equivalent of total household electrical service, or an electric furnace or more than 1,500 compact fluorescent lights (13 watt units - typically used to replace 60-watt incandescent light bulbs). Rifkin uses the term FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle) frequently in the book, never acknowledging that it is in reality a Fuel Cell ELECTRIC Vehicle. The bulk of the storage issues for FCEVs are very reminiscent of battery placement issues that have been addressed by BEVs over the past few decades.

Even if hydrogen becomes a transport fuel, it is more likely to be used in an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) than in a fuel cell. The efficiency will probably be somewhat lower, but will avoid the cost of the fuel cell. Methanol or ethanol are more likely transport fuels for the future than hydrogen.

All the advantages cited for the FCV by Rifkin and the automakers are actually attributes of electric vehicles (EVs), a technology ignored by Rifkin and actively opposed and suppressed by the ICE-centric major automakers.

A 20 kW FCV implies a FC-battery hybrid, as 20 kW will not support the power demand for acceleration or hill climbing for a mid-size automobile weighing over a tonne. Batteries will also support regenerative braking, which a fuel cell cannot do. So even if FCVs are produced in significant numbers, advanced batteries will still be required. In reality, a BEV with hydrogen-fueled range extension, which still leaves the door open to a plug-in hybrid. The electricity can be used to charge the battery, or electrolyze water to produce hydrogen for subsequent use in the fuel cell. However, given the relative efficiencies of local electrolysis plus generating electricity via the fuel cell compared to charging a battery, the BEV will make less demands on the electrical grid per vehicle-mile traveled than will the FCV. This will be an important consideration in areas where the grid is already operating at or near capacity at any time of the day (e.g. hot summer afternoons), unless time-of-use metering is widely implemented to discourage electrical consumption at peak demand periods.

People don't actually want hydrogen. They want motive power for their vehicles, electricity for their appliances and indoor climate control (heating and cooling). The electrical grid already provides this, with zero emissions at the point of use. Where the grid is publicly owned, it provides the democratic attribute Rifkin seeks as well. In fact, the very local electrolyzers and access for PV, wind and other sustainable energy sources also depend on the existence and availability of the electrical grid. In reality, the Hydrogen Energy Web (HEW) that Rifkin postulates for the future already exists in the form of the electrical grid.

Rifkin keeps losing sight of the fact that hydrogen is an energy store. It is not a simple commodity; it takes energy and capital to produce, store and transport it.

Rifkin also clings to a belief that small power producers will be cheaper than power plants, but never explains why. If wind turbines become cost-effective, then utilities will install wind turbines. It is in their best profit-seeking interest to produce electricity at a lower total cost. Ditto for photovoltaics and geothermal and biofuels and fuel cells, as was the case for hydro. Economies of scale are a real phenomenon. When the limit is reached (diseconomies equal economies for incremental growth), build another facility. Rifkin states (page 226), "Power companies are going to have to come to grips with the reality that millions of local operators, generating electricity from fuel cells onsite, can produce more power more cheaply than can today's giant power plants." Hogwash! Especially if the hydrogen being consumed by those millions of local operators was originally produced via electrolysis or natural gas (which can be used to fuel electric power plants at higher efficiencies than fuel cells). And who is going to produce the bulk of the electricity to run the local electrolyzers? The "giant power plants", of course.

Rifkin, like most hydrogen advocates, postulates generation of hydrogen from clean, sustainable sources, but fails to address the issue that this is not where hydrogen comes from today, or provide a substantive solution as to how we will migrate to this nirvana within even a century.

Rifkin dreams of the HEW as a physical incarnation for his real agenda, a political revolt against corporatism, to be replaced by a world run on non-profit, volunteer and charitable principles. It isn't going to happen. Greed and laziness are stronger than altruism in the great majority of humans.

Instead of using government and collective funds and subsidies to install fuel cells and electrolyzers in homes, it would be a better idea to use those monies to make more energy-efficient homes (better weather sealing, more insulation, energy efficient windows, doors, appliances and lighting, siting for optimal use of solar energy, including active and passive heating and domestic water heating and effective use of shading to reduce summer solar gain). Lower initial cost for a greater overall benefit.

The attributes Rifkin wants from the hydrogen economy (democratization of the energy structure, cleaner energy use) is not in any way dependent on the hydrogen economy. In fact, the hydrogen economy may be antithetical to those goals. Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy store, and as long as undesirable energy sources (oil, natural gas, coal) remain the primary energy sources for hydrogen production, the hydrogen economy will continue to propagate the fossil fuel economy by proxy, and actually exacerbate the climate impacts as more energy is consumed to overcome the inefficiencies of the hydrogen economy energy cycle.

If you still believe in the hydrogen economy, please accept that the first step towards its anticipated benefits is to create significant amounts of sustainable energy production so that the hydrogen can be produced from clean sources. Then, if we happen to find that we don't actually need hydrogen as a medium to accomplish what we desire, at least we will be traveling down the right road anyway.

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