Hydrogen the agent of social reform

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At present consumers of energy in developed countries are reliant on either an extensive grid of wires or pipes for gas. Both are wasteful of energy and costly in terms of maintenance (Fig. 7.6).

Figure 7.6 The National Grid for the UK and Ireland including the inter-connectors with Ireland and the continent

One of the most persuasive of hydrogen apologists is Jeremy Rifkin, particularly in his latest book The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web.

According to him, the true destiny of fuel cells is fundamentally to change the relationship between people and energy which he calls 'The Next Great Economic and Social Revolution'.

Fuel cells suitable for commercial or domestic application are now available which opens up the possibility of an entirely new architecture for access to energy, namely distributed generation. It is the beginning of the transformation from a top-down energy supply system to one that is localized or 'bottom-up'. Individual companies or householders will be producers as well as consumers of energy. As Rifkin puts it. 'When millions of end-users connect their fuel cells powered by renewables into local, regional and national publicly owned hydrogen energy webs (HEWs), they can begin to share energy peer-to-peer - creating a new decentralized form of energy generation and use'.

Rifkin is convinced that the decentralized energy web will have a combined generating power in excess of that provided by the power utility companies. Advanced computers will transform the grid into a 'fully interactive intelligent energy network. Sensors and intelligent agents embedded throughout the system can provide up-to-the moment information on energy conditions, allowing current to flow exactly where and when it is needed and at the cheapest price'.4

Many have pointed out that the lack of energy is a key factor in maintaining world poverty. As the cost of fuel cells and electrolysing equipment continues to fall through technology improvements and economies of scale, PV/wind/biomass etc. generated electricity will enable remote villages to have their own mini-grid, with continuity of supply ensured by a community fuel cell, probably of the solid oxide variety. It may be more cost-effective for the fuel cell to be leased. As Rifkin puts it: 'Co-operatives, lending institutions and local governments might then view distributed generation energy webs as a core strategy for building sustainable, self-sufficient communities. Breaking the cycle of dependency and despair, becoming truly "empowered", starts with access to, and control over, energy'.5

For a variety of technical reasons the widespread adoption of fuel cell technology is some way off. Of course, if the hydrogen were to be carbon-free during production as well as use and the avoided external costs were to be translated into a subsidy, then hydrogen would already be cost-effective.

Several factors are already coalescing to make the fuel cell vehicle more attractive to the market than its fossil fuel powered counterpart:

• the inexorable rise in oil and gas prices

• rising uncertainty over secure supplies through a combination of resource depletion and an increasingly destabilized Middle East

• present generation internal combustion engine vehicles are nearing the peak of their efficiency which the industry regards as 30%. With the international research being directed towards fuel cell technology, it is very possible that their efficiency will rise from 50% now to at least 60%

• with increasing world population and an expanding middle class in the developing world, it is predicted that demand for cars will grow exponentially adding to the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels.

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