For years, experts have been saying we have only 40 or so
years of cheap, available crude oil left. Now some of the
world's leading petroleum geologists are suggesting that global
oil production could peak and begin a steep decline as early as
the end of this decade, sending oil prices through the roof.
Increasing tensions between the West and Islamic countries,
where most of the world's oil is produced, could further
threaten our access to affordable oil.
In desperation, the United States and other nations could
turn increasingly to dirtier fossil fuels--coal, tar sand and
heavy oil--which would only worsen global warming and imperil
the Earth's already beleaguered ecosystems.
There is a better way to go: hydrogen power.
Weaning the world off oil and turning it toward hydrogen,
however, will require a concerted effort by industry, government
and local communities on a scale comparable to the efforts in
the 1980s and 1990s that helped create the World Wide Web.
Hydrogen is the most basic and ubiquitous element in the
universe. It is the "forever fuel," producing no
harmful carbon dioxide emissions when burned and giving off as
byproducts only heat and pure water. All that needs to be done
is to extract hydrogen from various elements so that it is
useable in fuel cells.
The commercially usable hydrogen currently being produced is
extracted mostly from natural gas. However, renewable sources of
energy--wind, hydro, photovoltaic, geothermal, biomass--are
increasingly being used to generate electricity locally, and in
the future that electricity will in turn be used to electrolyze
water and separate out hydrogen that can be used to power fuel
Commercial fuel cells powered by hydrogen are just now being
introduced into the market for home, office and industrial use.
The major auto makers have spent more than $2 billion on
development of hydrogen cars, buses and trucks; the first
mass-produced vehicles are expected to be on the road in just a
Exactly how soon we will all be driving hydrogen cars will
depend on a number of factors, including the price of oil on
world markets, the availability of hydrogen refueling stations
and numerous other technical questions in the manufacturing
Even given these stumbling blocks, many energy experts
believe that over the next several decades hydrogen fuel cells
will become our best source of energy. And the rise of this
source of power would open the way for fundamental changes in
our markets and political and social institutions, just as coal
and steam power did at the beginning of the Industrial Age.
The hydrogen economy would make possible a vast
redistribution of power. Today's centralized, top-down flow of
energy, controlled by global oil companies and utilities, would
become obsolete. In the new era, every human being could become
the producer as well as the consumer of his or her own
energy--so-called "distributed generation."
When millions of users connect their fuel cells by hooking
into existing power grids, using the same design principles and
smart technologies that made possible the Web, they can begin to
share energy peer-to-peer--creating a new, decentralized form of
In the hydrogen fuel cell era, even the automobile itself
would be a "power station on wheels" with a generating
capacity of 20 kilowatts. Since the average car is parked most
of the time, it could be plugged in, during nonuse hours, to the
home, office or the main interactive electricity network,
providing premium electricity back to the grid.
When the end users also become the producers of their energy,
the only role remaining for existing power plants is to become
"virtual power plants" that can manufacture and market
fuel cells, bundle energy services and coordinate the flow of
energy over the existing power grids.
Hydrogen would dramatically cut down on carbon dioxide
emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming. And
because hydrogen is so plentiful and exists everywhere, every
human being, once we all become masters of the technology, could
be "empowered," resulting in the first truly
democratic energy regime in history.
Nowhere would hydrogen energy be more important than in the
Incredibly, 65% of the human population has never made a
single telephone call, and one-third has no access to
electricity or any other form of commercial energy.
Lack of access to energy, especially electricity, is a key
factor in perpetuating poverty around the world.
Conversely, access to energy means more economic opportunity.
In South Africa, for example, for every 100 households
electrified, 10 to 20 new businesses are created.
Electricity frees human labor from day-to-day survival tasks.
In resource-poor countries, simply finding enough firewood or
dung to warm a house or cook meals can take hours out of each
Electricity provides power to run farm equipment, operate
small factories and craft shops and light homes, schools and
As the price of hydrogen fuel cells and accompanying
appliances plummets with new innovations and economies of scale,
cells will become more available, as was the case with
transistor radios, computers and cellular phones. The goal ought
to be to provide stationary fuel cells for every neighborhood
and village in the developing world.
The road to global security lies in lessening our dependence
on Middle East oil and making sure that all people on Earth have
access to the energy they need to sustain life. The hydrogen
economy is a promissory note for a safer world.
is the author of "The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the
World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on
Earth" (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002).
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times