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Jeremy Rifkin at the LSE - 8 May 2007

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PostPosted: Tue May 08, 2007 6:37 pm    Post subject: Jeremy Rifkin at the LSE - 8 May 2007 Reply with quote

I went to a talk at the LSE at lunchtime today by Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Hydrogen Economy" and "The European Dream". He spoke about the hydrogen economy and the 3rd industrial revolution.

I haven't read his book on the hydrogen economy and was curious to hear what he had to say on energy issues.

Interestingly, he was well acquainted with the basic facts on peak oil. He identified four factors that were driving us towards what he describes as a 3rd industial revolution (the first being the move away from hunter-gathering to agriculture and the second being the fossil fuel-driven one we all know well).

1 Climate change
2 Third world debt
3 Political instability in the Middle East
4 Peak oil

He actually used the phrase 'peak oil', rather than 'energy security' or similar. He correctly summarised the concept, referring to Hubbert and the US peak in '1972' (almost right), explained that there was a divergence of opinion about when the global peak was but that the world's 'top five geologists' predicted 2010 - 2020. The IEA's 'optimistic' estimate was 2035. Importantly, he recognised that the exact date when it happens does not matter as much as the fact that it is happening.

He clearly saw climate change and peak oil as linked problems. Likewise Middle Eastern political instability and third world debt. He was very aware that poorer countries were already being badly affected by $65 oil and understood clearly the likely risks of an escalation of the tensions in the Middle East over the next few years.

He understood too that gas would peak soon after oil and that increased use of coal and use of marginal oil resources, such as the Albertan tar sands, would have a terrible impact on the climate.

Nuclear was lumped in with the fossil fuels, as a strictly limited resource which had a four big drawbacks:

    * it is a finite resource that would be exhausted soon, and that time would come quicker if any attempt to expand it was ever managed
    * the waste problem had not been addressed
    * it would take too long to build enough stations to impact on energy shortages significantly
    * it was based on the 'old 20th century' model of centralised grids and distribution

Similarly, he saw carbon capture and sequestration as a non-starter.

So far, his analysis seemed pretty good to me, but then...

He went on to describe the three industrial revolutions, which he rightly recognised as energy revolutions:

The move to agriculture, away from hunter-gathering, allowed humans to develop the first complex societies, because enough of a surplus of food could be produced to support some people not engaged in food production. He linked this to the first written language, needed to co-ordinate agricultural and other activity and to manage the new energy stores: grain stocks.

He linked the second, fossil fuelled industrial revolution, to first wider-spread use of printing to convey ideas much more widely that ever before.

The third, hydrogen fuelled industrial revolution, is one where he sees the new decentralised energy infrastructure being modelled on what he sees as the decentralised communication system that is the internet. He sees Linux and Google as analogous to the new, bottom-up, decentralised energy infrastructure.

He said that 'the entire [energy] infrastructure of the planet' has to change within 25 years and that this was 'a daunting task'. He's not kidding!

He gave us a roughly sketched glimse of what forms this new infrastructure might take:

One idea: seems more realistic, but does not address the liquid fuels and food production problems...

There's a scheme in Spain (Saratoga Technology Energy Park?) of wind and solar supplying local needs, where they are planning to use electrolysis to produce hydrogen to store excess power for use when on windless nights. He sees a future of renewables feeding more localised grids backed up by hydrogen storage.

Another idea: seems unrealistic...

100,000s of fuel cell cars to be manufactured by General Motors by the middle of the next decade (so that'll just leave use with 699 million cars still running on fossil fuels!!)

I would have loved to have stayed on for questions, to hear what he had to say about the 'Hirsch' energy infrastructure problems and the scalability and other drawbacks with hydrogen.

Still, it was interesting. It fitted in with his very upbeat view of the world. His book on the European Dream is well worth a read. I think his views focus on the big picture, idealistic vision thing and less on some of the practical problems that may be encountered on the way. I think this approach is valid in reference to the subject matter in the European Dream - which is about political structures and relations. When it comes to our energy predicament, we need to focus on the constraints imposed on us by physics and maths. On this point, he made the observation that "economics should be based on the laws of thermodynamics" - so maybe he understands more about peak oil that he's been given credit for?
"The greatest shortcoming of the human race (still) is our inability to understand the exponential function."
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