Book Reviews: The End of Oil (Roberts); The Hydrogen Economy (Rifkin)

Submitted by John Roeder
2005-07-07 11:29:14

Paul Roberts, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2004). ISBN 0-618-23977-4. 389 pp. $26.

Jeremy Rifkin, The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth (Putnam, New York, 2002). ISBN 1-58542-193-6. 295 pp. $24.95.

When I set out to read these books, I expected from their titles that they would cover two different aspects of energy sources in our history, that the first would paint a gloomy picture of life on Earth as its oil resources are depleted and that the second would focus on what life would be like in a future fueled by hydrogen. Although these expectations were borne out to some extent, I was struck more by how much these two books had in common.

For example, they both characterize the ages of societal development by their energy sources: hunter-gatherer stage by human energy, agricultural stage by solar and animal energy, industrial stage by fossil fuels. They both warn of the impending peak of global oil output (with most values cited between 2010 and 2030) and of the dangers of "holding on" to our present fossil fuel reliance rather than planning for alternatives. They both see the world oil picture in light of expenses to maintain the royal family of Saudi Arabia, Islamic fundamentalism, and China's growing appetite for oil. They both see global warming as a further danger posed by continued reliance on fossil fuels, with greater danger posed by the possibility that insufficient oil will lead both China and the United States to burn coal or oil substitutes (like oil from shale and tar sands), all of which will emit even more carbon dioxide. They also
note that the first advocacy of hydrogen as a fuel came from geneticist J. B. S. Haldane in a 1923 Cambridge University lecture.

That said, let us now turn to how the books differ. One of the reasons they differ is the backgrounds of their authors. Roberts is a journalist, who in turn is dependent upon those he interviews and reads for his expertise. Because of the huge investment tied up in our fossil fuel infrastructure, a phenomenon Roberts calls "asset inertia," he confesses in his conclusion that the onset of writing his book found him pessimistic about continuing "business as usual" with fossil fuels. This comes through in several statements:

". . . the real question, for anyone truly concerned about our future, is not whether change is going to come, but whether the shift will be peaceful and orderly or chaotic and violent because we waited too long to begin planning for it." (p. 14)

". . . the real question is not whether oil is going to run out (it will) but whether we have the capacity, the political will, to see that outcome soon enough to prepare ourselves for it." (p.65)

". . . an even more important question: whether we can produce enough energy by any means to provide a decent standard of living for the entire planet and at the same time satisfy our emerging criteria for climate and energy security. . . ." (pp. 210-212)

Yet, Roberts admits that writing the book has left him with a "more complex perspective." Because natural gas can be converted to liquid fuel and shows promise for generating electricity with lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal, he sees natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to what he calls the "next energy economy," but he concedes that it is not clear where the "bridge" will lead. However, because the global peak in natural gas output is expected to follow the global peak in oil output by about 20 years, this "bridge" cannot last long.

The future Roberts would like to see, as expressed in his last chapter, is one in which a carbon-emissions tax is imposed in order to discourage further contribution to global warming. If utilities can be taxed for the sulfur dioxide, he asks, why can't they be taxed for the carbon dioxide they emit? (An initial amount of $10/ton is suggested, with a ramping up to ten times that in 15-20 years.) Another part of Roberts' vision is raising the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for automobiles, which remain unchanged since President Reagan froze them in 1987. He would facilitate this by a "feebate" system -- extra fees for gas guzzlers (up front, so the prospective purchaser would think about the total cost before buying), and rebates for vehicles getting more than 40 miles to the gallon. He would also subsidize Detroit (which he acknowledges is saddled with the most asset inertia) to compensate for the advantages foreign manufacturers already enjoy at the high end of the fuel efficiency scale (a provision he sees as justified in the name of national
security). Raising the CAFE standards by 4 miles/gallon, he points out, would save twice the oil that could be pumped from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But Roberts feels that the United States needs to do more to show its commitment to a more positive energy future. To match Denmark's leadership in wind technology and Japan's leadership in solar energy technology (the former of which could generate competitive electricity without paying a carbon tax), he would like to see the U.S., as the world's leading holder of coal reserves, develop leadership in clean-coal technology -- and give it to China and India if it is necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming.

If Roberts is not sure what the energy future will bring, Rifkin, writing as the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, DC, is very clear about what it should bring. Rifkin's answer is hydrogen, which he calls the "forever fuel," largely because of its abundance in the universe. He sometimes mistakenly associates it with the "power of the sun" (where there is hydrogen fusion, not hydrogen combustion). And while on p. 180 he finally acknowledges that hydrogen fuel is "a secondary form of energy that has to be produced," nowhere does he confront the consequences of this requirement in a quantitative way.

When Rifkin characterizes the ages of societal development by their energy sources, he does so with a particular bent to the type of society necessitated by the energy source. He maintains that "the greater the horizontal flow of energy from environment to society, the greater the vertical flow of societal power from the top down needed to secure the process." (p. 41) He adds on p. 89 that this also means greater production of entropy, which he consistently miscues as energy "no longer able to perform useful work." (p. 44) He applies "thermodynamic" arguments to assert that "Collapse sets in . . . when a mature civilization reaches the point at which it is forced to spend more and more of its energy reserves simply maintaining its complex social arrangements while experiencing diminishing returns in the energy enjoyed per capita." (p. 56) "The complex, centralized infrastructure we have created to manage a high-energy fossil-fueled economy [which Roberts refers to as "asset inertia"] -- once our greatest asset -- is fast becoming our biggest liability," he adds on p. 144. And on p. 173 he writes that "We are living through the senescent stages of a mature energy regime, with all the problems that go with it." Elsewhere (at the beginning of Chapter 7) he states that we risk danger by paying more to maintain access to Middle Eastern oil than the value of the oil itself.

Rifkin argues that we need to get out from under our present system characterized by corporate domination and vertical control. To argue for the next stage, he goes back to his characterization of societal development stages in terms of energy resources and adds a correlated form of communication. For the industrial stage characterized by dependence on fossil fuels he cites the printing press, telegraph, and telephone, all of which, like the entire industrial age, have relied on central points of dissemination (publishing houses and telegraph and telephone companies are centralized just like electric power plants). But the most recent form of communication, Rifkin observes, is the Internet, which is not centralized, and he sees hydrogen playing the same role as our next energy source as a "Hydrogen Energy Web." This Web will be run as an interconnected system of hydrogen-fueled fuel cells by cooperative DGAs (distributed-generation associations), for which he sees Community Development Corporations, Community Development Credit Unions, pub not-for-profit utilities, Common Interest Developments, and cooperatives as either models or candidates. Rifkin sees the Hydrogen Energy Web as "democratizing" energy, and no more so than on the international scale, particularly in terms of "empowering" the developing world, in a double sense of the word, by bringing a source of energy which does not require going into hock by having to pay for ever more expensive oil imports. But he does not confront the problem of how he is going to generate the hydrogen fuel for all these interconnected fuel cells.

- John L. Roeder

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