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The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World-Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth [Hardcover]

Jeremy Rifkin
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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  • Hardcover: 294 pages
  • Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher; First Printing edition (2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585421936
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585421930
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,483,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wide-ranging but uneven review of energy policy 27 Mar 2008
By Mr. Tristan Martin VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
Jeremy Rifkins' The Hydrogen Economy is a wide-ranging but patchy discussion around the concept of Peak Oil (a situation where worldwide production of oil hits the top of a bell curve and begins an irreversible decline).

The book has certain chapters that are strong; Rifkin's summation of Peak Oil is solid - that we as a fossil fuel consuming society have peaked in our usage of oil and that we should start (really should have started decades ago) on alternative energy sources is fine. Rifkin emphasises not just the technological impacts that an energy shortage could have on the world at large but also the impact fossil fuels have had on our environment; that we are at a crux whereby our ecosystem is about to take a massive hit that we as species might not recover from (the planet will but global timescales are measured in millennia and not centuries).

In particular, I was very much taken with Rifkin's concept of civilisation in terms of the laws of thermodynamics. This grand theory illustrates a facet of the rise and fall of the Roman republic: that energy (in the universe in general) is constant, only its form changes and when it changes, there is always some entropy. Roman society became effectively over-stretched, it consumed more resources than it produced, mostly in terms of agriculture. An empire sustained through military imperialism required a massive amount of energy and at a certain point, what was produced was outweighed by what was consumed plus what was effectively waste. This pattern, Rifkin argues, has been a dominant theme through all major civilisations, of which there have been anywhere from approximately a dozen to around thirty, depending on your methodology.
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Amazon.com: 2.6 out of 5 stars  38 reviews
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I really wanted to like this book. 5 Nov 2002
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As undeveloped societies throughout the world become industrialized, their energy needs, coupled with growing energy consumption in the West, will stress the capacity of energy providers, political and social systems, and the environment.
The first part of the book traces the history of energy use in the Western world from the fourteenth century on. By 1700 the forests of Europe were becoming depleted of wood and people began burning coal. In the middle of the 1800s, oil began to replace coal. Each fuel in this progression has a smaller carbon to hydrogen ratio than the preceding one. Scientists call this evolution "decarbonization." Rifkin shows how each energy source in this progression uses more sophisticated methods for its exploitation, with the oil industry using the most complicated technology. Exploration, drilling, refining, brokering, delivery, all must all be coordinated, and each part of the process consumes as well as provides energy. Each step also further removes the end user from the manufacturing process. This, with a short detour into the causes of Islamic militancy, is basically the first 157 pages of the book.
Rifkin's major source of information about patterns of future energy use is the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). In 1971, the US Senate wanted to create an agency to research the nation's energy needs, and the energy industry organized EPRI as an alternative. Presumably, the governmental organization would have been subject to congressional oversight, while the industry-organized EPRI is accountable only to the energy industry. In assuming the inevitable progression from oil to hydrogen, Rifkin quotes officials of the EPRI and their publications continually throughout the book, and he accepts their pronouncements uncritically. In my opinion, he hasn't made his case.
Hydrogen is called a secondary energy source, because it can only be obtained by using some other source of energy. The source could be primary, such as coal, natural gas, oil, or wind, or it could be a process like electrolysis. But to become an independent energy supplier, the end user would have to somehow generate hydrogen. How would this be accomplished? Rifkin says individual consumers will generate hydrogen using fuel cells in automobiles. But the end user cannot obtain fuel cells independently of manufacturers or suppliers.
Rifkin claims that there are already in place organizations that can help individual end users become autonomous energy producers. He claims that Common Interest Developments (such as Homeowners' Associations) can be major players in establishing distributed energy, thus contributing to the empowerment of the individual energy consumer. But the author of a book Rifkin cites to support this claim, Evan McKenzie, concludes that Common Interest Developments do not exist to empower individuals over whom they exercise authority. And the idea that such agencies "provide a bottom-up organizational structure" is nonsense. Despite their democratic structure, all powers, legislative, judiciary and administrative, are concentrated in the hands of their boards of directors.
Rifkin also cites the Mondragon cooperative as an example of an agency that has empowered individuals, but doesn't mention any of the problems Mondragon has encountered. Does the author think readers won't notice things like this? I bought this book to learn about issues related to switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, but was disappointed. In fact, it was hard to finish reading this book. A better book is "GeoDestinies," by Walter Youngquist.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A must read Introduction to the biggest problem we face 13 Nov 2002
By Scott Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It would be easy to criticize this book. 175 pages deal with problems, and only 75 with solutions. Furthermore, hydrogen is not a natural source of energy, but rather, an increasingly important means of storing and transporting energy. But such criticisms would not place this important book in proper context.
The problems facing society are very real. We are running out of fossil fuels. We are exacerbating that problem by flagrant miscalculations of the costs and effects of fossil fuels, as well as miscalculation of how much remains. These miscalculations seem to be carried by a deep current of denial flowing throughout society. In this regard, our relationship to fossil fuels may be turning more into an addiction than a harnessing of nature's abundance. Rifkin distils and presents the barest facets of the problem in an engaging and powerful presentation. There can be little doubt that hydrogen, though not the next source of energy, will become a rallying cry, and an icon of renewable energy in the public mind.
Rifkin is straightforward in explaining that hydrogen is not the source, but rather, the medium of the next big shift in energy technology. Thin treatment of solutions after a depressingly thick presentation of the problem accurately reflects the real dilemma. The problem is huge, and at this point in time, solutions are little more than a flickering hope.
The Hydrogen Economy by Jeremy Rifkin is the opening salvo in a public debate that must widen and deepen quickly if we are to have even the slightest chance of a timely solution to what is looking more each year like a disasterous finale to the fossil fuel age.
If taken litteraly, Rifkin's application of entropy to human society will seem strained to the thermodynamically astute. As a metaphore it is elegant. Clearly, Rifkin hopes, above all else, to promote the possibilities of hydrogen as a socioeconomic equalizer. I share this hope. But under the circumstances, its like hoping you'll have steak and eggs for breakfast as you watch the Titanic sink. I'll take a solution anyway we can get it. But first, we've got to open our eyes, face the problem, and discuss it. Reading this book is a good first step.
Don't be surprised if there are a lot of negative reactions to this book. Everone feels uncomfortable when confronted while in denial. Its worse when the denial is collective and more so when it is global. You're not supposed to "feel good" about a book like this. Denying the conclusions is bound to be a frequent reaction, but its not a healthy reaction. It will undoubtedly be better recieved outside the US where fossil fuel addiction is less accute.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Important Points, One Misleading Title 5 Sep 2003
By Terry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
52 of 62 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't believe the Title 22 Oct 2002
By Donn D. Dears - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Seldom has so much misleading information been contained in a single volume. Equally important, the author doesn't begin to address the hydrogen economy until the last third of the book. The first 175 pges consists of what can graciuosly be desribed as pseudo science, pseudo engineering, pseudo religeon and pseudo history. His attempt to use thermodynamics to describe history and human progress is ludicrous. As an engineer I can attest that his use of thermodynamics is clumsy at best.
Incredibly, the last 37 pages are a lecture on communizing electricty and "establishing human settlements by bio-regions, eco-regions and geo-regions" in effect doing away with Nation States.
Permeating the book is a Malthusean spectre:We are on the cusp of doom.
When he finally deals with the hydrogen economy his thesis can be sumarized in a few words. Fuel cells will be in every home and building and automobile and the elcetric grid will look like the World Wide Web with distributed generation everywhere.
It should be noted that the idea of a hydrogen economy is not new and that better, less politicized sources of valid information can be found elsewhere (including information about the obstacles that must be overcome, something the author does not seriously address).
Don't be misled by the title, this book has little to offer about the hydrogen economy. Only 39 pages are devoted to the hydrogen economy and this is a superficial treatment of an important subject.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brave new energy world? 18 Mar 2003
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Or a new shell game?
The title of this book is a little misleading since most of the book is about the effect that energy has had on the rise and fall of human societies from hunter-gatherers through agriculturists and the Roman Empire to the ascendency of the United States in the 19th century and into the current world economy. Rifkin sees cheap energy and the high per capita use of it as a prime indicator of a flourishing society. He notes that Rome rose when it was able to commandeer energy sources from conquered lands in the form of tribute and slaves; but when the booty from military conquests began to fall to diminishing returns, Rome itself began to fall.
He sees the same thing possibly happening to the United States in another but similar manner. He notes that US domestic oil production peaked in 1970. (p. 4) Whereas up until then, domestic production supplied most of the oil the United States used; since then we have become more and more dependent on foreign sources. He foresees a peak in world crude production sometime in the next decade or so, and after that a slide toward more and more expensive oil and more and more of our wealth flowing into the last bastion of crude reserves in primarily the Middle Eastern states.
What to do about this? Hocus-pocus, usher in the hydrogen economy in which hydrogen fuel cells will replace not only gas from the pump but will generate electricity for home, farm and office. There is just one little catch: at current prices the cost of converting either gasoline, natural gas or water (all requiring energy, usually electrical power) is prohibitive. Rifkin de-emphasizes this little problem as he enthuses about how decentralized and how clean-burning will be the "decarbonized" hydrogen economy. Right now, according to Michael A. Peavey in his book, Fuel from Water: Energy Independence with Hydrogen, it costs $7.40 to create enough hydrogen fuel to equal the energy provided by one gallon of gasoline (at electricity costing $0.10 per Kwh). Rifkin does not go into this non-cost effectiveness to any great degree, partly because he believes both that the cost of conversion will go down and the price of oil will go up.
A quick read might give the impression that one can use electricity to produce hydrogen from say water and use the hydrogen to create electricity or run engines with a net gain. Not so. The efficiency of the process of electrolysis (getting hydrogen from water) is about 50%. This is a big net loss. So why are automobile manufactures, oil companies and Jeremy Rifkin so excited about hydrogen technology?
First and foremost of course hydrogen is clean burning. It does not produce any greenhouse gases that are leading to global warming. And second, when used in fuel cell technology there is the prospect that energy use and production will be decentralized allowing individuals and small organizations freedom from the vast infrastructure and top down organization that characterizes the oil industry today.
Both of these advantages of hydrogen however depend on the use of renewable resources, wind, sun, downward running water, evaporation, the burning of biomass, etc. to isolate the hydrogen which is always tied up in molecules with other elements as in water, natural gas, oil, etc. So what the advantages accruing from the proposed brave new world of the hydrogen economy actually depend on is the same thing we cannot do today, that is, get the bulk of our energy from renewable resources.
As others have pointed out, essentially hydrogen is an energy storage device. The initial energy must come from somewhere else. Although we definitely need storage devices that can be placed where we want them to be utilized even when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow, storage devices themselves are not an independent source of energy and cannot by themselves be the solution to our energy problems.
Having said this, the book is still a very good read and an eye-opener about the coming end of the fossil fuel era, arriving at our doorsteps in just a few decades. Also Rifkin's speculations about the nature of the hydrogen economy are interesting and probably pertinent since the major car manufacturers and the major oil companies are already gearing up for the transformation. These mega-players in the energy game will dictate the rules in the years to come. They will use their existing infrastructures and their capital to ease the transformation for them and to maintain their power and profit margins. This is one of the salient points Rifkin makes in this book. The curious thing is, I'm not sure whether, amid all of his enthusiastic expression, he realizes what his message really is, namely that we are going to be burning fossil fuels and building nuclear plants well into the latter half of the 21st century.
Note well this quote on page 189 from John Browne, the CEO of British Petroleum, making the "bullish" forecast that "50 percent" of world-wide energy demand "will be met by solar and other renewable resources by 2050." That, folks, is the bottom line: fifty percent by 2050, fuel cells or no fuel cells.
The bottom line for this book is that it is readable, informative--even at times, fascinating--but not exactly what it purports to be. Read it and judge for yourself.
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