Say goodbye to fossil fuels. Author and environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin explains why hydrogen is the next great power source.

Published September 24, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Imagine driving a car that not only doesn't pump out any greenhouse gas emissions, but also acts as a generator to power your house at night, and feeds any excess energy back to the power grid. It's a dream that goes by the name of "distributed generation" and it's based on the idea that hydrogen is the next great power source.

In the hydrogen future, owning such a car would mean that it would drive your house, when you weren't driving it. The car would be a kind of power plant on wheels, with a generating capacity of twenty kilowatts, all powered by hydrogen. Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is abundantly available everywhere and just needs to be extracted from a source like natural gas, gasoline or water. And unlike an electric car, which must be charged up at night by the electrical power grid, a hydrogen car would actually make its driver an energy producer.

Sixteen prototypes of these wonder cars, which run on hydrogen and sometimes methanol, are already cruising around California. The California Fuel Cell Partnership, a research group that's testing the cars, recently held a fuel-cell car rally in Monterey. The partnership expects to have 60 of these cars on the road by the end of 2003.

For Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Hydrogen Economy," hydrogen power is the next big thing, as big or bigger than the last big thing, the emergence of the Internet and the Web. And Rifkin sees a connection between the two. A future in which every car driver could also be an energy producer implies a power infrastructure that is fundamentally decentralized. When everyone becomes a buyer and a seller of power, the similarly decentralized Internet will be the medium that matches producers and consumers together.

But is hydrogen really a clean-cut chemical Prince Charming destined to rescue us from the triple-threat evil stepsisters of greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and dependence on foreign oil? Or is it yet another false idol, perpetually a decade off in the future, put forth by car and energy companies to soothe our fears about the environment and geopolitical unrest, while they go about their usual business burning up the same old suspect fossil fuels?

Rifkin spoke to Salon by phone and explained his views on the potential of hydrogen power. It won't be easy, he says, but just imagining the possibility is the first step to achieving the dream.

Where do things stand now with hydrogen power?

GE and other companies are moving to hydrogen fuel cells for home use by next year. This is just about where the P.C. and the Internet revolution was in the '80s; in other words, it's beyond the point of pure R&D, but just at the very beginning of market penetration. There are about 850 companies rushing into this. And for stationary fuel cells, we have 30 states that now mandate that if you generate energy at the end of the line with renewable [power sources], they've got to accept your energy back to the power grid. There's also legislation nationally in the U.S. that would make the whole power grid open.

You will also see it in cartridges for laptops and cell phones. Motorola is doing a methane fuel cell, others are doing hydrogen. You'll be able to power-up your cellphone for 40 days. That's in the next year or so. That's when the public will be acquainted with fuel cells.

Big oil has long been accused of doing everything it can to squelch research into alternative energy sources. Won't the petrochemical industry try to stop hydrogen power from happening, at least in the short term?

The energy industry is split. Dutch/Shell and BP are ahead of the game. They spent 10 years buying up every renewable technology and patenting it, and have huge hydrogen divisions. They're getting ready. BP's new slogan is "beyond oil."

On the other hand, ExxonMobil, which is the U.S.-based global giant -- they're not buying it. They're doing a little bit, but not much.

The power utility industry is interesting. Up until the last year or two, they didn't want to hear about distributed generation. It was too big a threat.

It would seem to be an enormous threat.

It's one of the great power changes in history, literally and figuratively, almost like the World Wide Web, at least in the possibilities. And it will be struggled around just like with the Web.

But in the last year or two, at least two of the major companies that I work with are looking at this because with deregulation they don't have a lot of cash, and now their equities have tanked. So, they're facing a situation where they really don't want to build a lot of new capacity. And it's cheaper to have a fuel cell put at the end user's site, (for business or for home use), than it is to build a new power plant.

Then the question is who will control that fuel cell site -- the end user or the power company? If the end users can control the energy, then you really have democratized, decentralized energy.

What about hydrogen cars? How realistic is that?

The car companies have spent a couple of billion on this but most of us in the environmental community have been saying that this isn't serious. We've always thought that it was kind of a ruse so that the car companies wouldn't have to deal with fuel efficiency and conservation.

Right. It's always off in the future. Meanwhile they keep pumping out their SUVs.

You got it. Without second-guessing them, that's all changed because of California in the last few months. Gray Davis signed legislation this summer saying that if you want to sell a car in the state of California in 2009, you can't come into the state without near zero emissions, and that's hydrogen. General Motors is suing to stop this, and so are other companies, but they're also rushing furiously to get to hydrogen, because they can't lose California. It's the single biggest automobile market in the entire world.

How do consumers become producers of energy in the hydrogen economy?

When a hydrogen car is not operating, you can plug it in to generate power for your home, factory or shopping mall. So, if the whole U.S. fleet was hydrogen, and if 25 percent of the fleet were plugged in when it was not operating, you wouldn't need one power plant in the country. That's the power of distributed generation.

When do you think that you and I might be driving a hydrogen car?

You'll be able to buy a commercially viable hydrogen car by 2009 in the showrooms in the U.S., along with regular fossil-fuel internal-combustion cars. Those hydrogen cars will use fossil fuels to get the hydrogen, but at least it's a bridge.

How does hydrogen power fit into the renewable energy movement?

You cannot really have a renewable energy society without it. Because when you generate electricity with wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric, the electricity immediately flows. You can't store that electricity. So, when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining and the water isn't going over the dam because of drought, your economy stops. [In contrast,] coal, oil and gas are stored energies.

Hydrogen is the way to store renewable energy. You take renewables. You generate electricity. You use that electricity to separate hydrogen from water, and there's your stored energy. Then, you put it in fuel cells whenever you want.

Hydrogen is [also] ubiquitous. Unlike coal, oil and gas, every community has hydrogen. Yes, you have to extract it. But what's going to happen is that Moore's Law has already set in here with hydrogen, where you're doubling the knowledge and halving the cost, as you did in software and in the biotech revolution.

Why is the shift to hydrogen so important?

The big revolutions in history that change the density of exchange between people economically and socially occur very rarely, and they're based on two things happening, a revolutionary change in communications or in energy.

If you, the end user, can share energy back to the power grid, then you have to decentralize the power grid so that you can move energy where you want, when you want. But you will need the language of software to be able to actually move the energy in a decentralized way. The digital technology revolution of the last 20 years will become the language to redesign the power infrastructure of the world, so you can decentralize energy and move it where you want, when you want it.

What do you see as the barriers to a hydrogen economy really taking off?

I think that the obstacles are huge. But, of course, why wouldn't they be? This is one of the great changes in history. When we moved to steam and coal there were huge obstacles. It started off small, but it changed our living patterns, it changed governments. We went to urban life, centralized living, big cities, the bourgeois family, the nation state. We went from craft to factory, but it didn't take place overnight. With hydrogen, I think that the infrastructure gets laid down over the next 25 to 30 years.

We have to wait 30 years?

This isn't a one-year bubble. But by 2050 hydrogen subsumes fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are still here but hydrogen now is the main power carrier. By the end of the century fossil fuels are boutique, meaning for plastics, materials, pharmaceuticals.

You point out in your book that civilizations haven't been very good at changing energy regimes, until they absolutely have to. Why do you think that we're going to be any different?

I don't know if we will. We could be in deep trouble for a long time. I don't know. But what I do know is that putting out the possibility for a new framework gives us something that we can work towards.

Can you imagine the possibility that you generate your own power? It's kind of like if you and I were having a discussion in the early, early period of the first PCs. People are sort of playing around with them for research, they're starting to sell them but not too many people are buying them, and it's kind of the early take-off years. That's about where we are with this technology.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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