What this book WAS about:
1. The world is running out of fossil fuels. (Rifkin's Grade: A+)
No, really. And faster than you realize. Rifkin's thorough, satisfying treatment of what happens when world oil production peaks is required reading. Rifkin writes much on this topic, making his point but setting himself up for failure with his much flimsier treatment of hydrogen alternatives (see below).
2. Fuel sources -- their abundance and depletion -- account for the rise and fall of civilizations. (Grade A-)
I found this to be the most fascinating idea in the book, and potentially the most important for its grand sweeping historical scope. Readers who savor "geodestiny" arguments such as those brilliantly described in Jared Diamond's Pulitzer-winning, "Guns, Germs, and Steel", or other "ultimate causes" of history (like Schmookler's profound "The Parable of the Tribes") will be chewing on this aspect of Rifkin's thesis for days. The degree to which Rifkin's "fuel-as-destiny" argument stands up to academic scrutiny, I'll leave to scholars to debate. But even if over-simplified, the argument has the unnerving effect of putting the notion of our cozy, stable, modern existence completely up for grabs. The startling, humbling "a-ha" is that we take much for granted -- our wealth, our security, our comfort, and our expectation of constant progress. Without sufficient fuel, all of these can only slide backwards, with the ultimate grim outcome of adding "modern civilization" to the long list of great civilizations who've come and gone. In short, when oil runs out, a second Dark Age might not require anything so random or dramatic as global pandemic or cometary impact.
Why an A-? Rifkin's dependence on thermodynamic entropy is interesting but scientifically literate readers will cringe when he jumps casually from physics to culture using the same terminology.
3. The democratizing, decentralizing effects of distributed energy production. (Grade C)
The second most important idea in this book, and worthwhile if only to inspire other writers or your own thinking of how the world might fundamentally restructure itself if all energy were produced locally. Rifkin's flimsy exploration of the topic (just one chapter) comes across as froth however, spastic arm-waving with little research or substance, particularly when taken together with the book's most damning shortcomings (see below). I'm unconvinced that distributed power generation will lead to one big utopian love-fest; I want to hear suggestions, with the same depth and insights as in Point #2, of how geopolitics will be rattled and reshaped from the ground-up.
What this book SHOULD HAVE BEEN about:
1. Renewable sources as a solution to the energy *source* problem. (Grade: F)
Out of 9 chapters, less than one chapter is devoted to this topic. In fact, according to the index, only *three pages* are about solar energy! True, Rifkin disclaims that hydrogen is only a good way to store and transport energy and that it's not a primary source. Unfortunately, he writes the rest of the book as though he has forgotten his own disclaimer. By constantly whooping up hydrogen's ubiquity ("the most abundant element in the universe," etc) and speaking of household-level, distributed generation, he misleads the casual reader into assuming that energy is there, free for the taking if, like fusion, we'd only get off our butts and harness it with technology. NOT TRUE!! How on earth are we supposed to get the hydrogen to every household in the first place? In tanker trucks? In hydrogen pipelines? (Both are net energy losses.) The only possible solution, which he, at best, only implies, is that *each home/building* needs to produce its own electricity via some renewable source. Presumably, a solar collector or windmill on every roof? Yet his coverage of the state-of-the-art and economics of these technologies is shockingly nonexistent. Again, these nascent technologies, the root of any true "hydrogen economy," comprise just a few pages in this entire book by that name. Moreover, even if every residential and commercial building deployed cost-competitive, next-generation solar/wind technologies, then why not just sell excess electricity back to the grid and dispense with household hydrogen altogether? The only answer is...
2. Hydrogen as gasoline replacement. (Grade: C-)
If renewable energy sources solve the "source" problem (a big "if"), then electrical generation no longer requires fossil fuels. That leaves one last problem: cars. Cars need gasoline, not electricity. Electric vehicles powered by batteries are a dead-end. Fortunately, recent breakthroughs by companies like Ballard have made hydrogen fuel cells potentially economically feasible. The economics and technologies of hydrogen-powered automobiles easily warrant 2-4 dedicated chapters in any book called "The Hydrogen Economy." Rifkin's treatment was so lean (less than one chapter!) that we're left wondering basic things like how many miles a car can get from a gallon of hydrogen. Or for that matter, is hydrogen pumped into the car as a gas or liquid? Is refueling dangerous? Etc. Due to his brevity, he completely fails to paint a picture of a hydrogen economy in which cars run on hydrogen. Rifkin's only redemption on this topic was his encouraging, well-researched statistics regarding major hydrogen technology investments among the automotive manufacturers and oil companies.
For a book so heavily front-loaded with the "why" of hydrogen, Rifkin's coverage of hydrogen's "how" is strangely almost non-existent. Most of the requisite technologies exist and are gradually approaching cost-competitiveness. But he chose to mention them briefly or not at all (Stirling engines anyone?). It's as though Rifkin ran out of pages, time, or ready knowledge, and needed to wrap things up quickly with a very rushed ending. Or perhaps, at the last moment, his publisher asked him to change the title of his nearly finished manuscript about fossil fuel depletion to something containing the word "Hydrogen." The identical book might have earned five stars if it were titled "The End of Oil." Perhaps not as marketable, but you'd feel less misled by the time you reach book's end. Read it only for the points mentioned above, if you're interested; not for insights into hydrogen's future.