Jeremy Rifkin and the Hydrogen Economy

Business, Hydrogen, Policy  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

Jeremy Rifkin wrote the book—literally—on our hydrogen future. The Hydrogen Economy came out in 2003 and it was the first holistic, strategic vision of how our energy regime could become sustainable, local, distributed, and based on hydrogen, the most common element in the universe.

“The first thing to keep in mind,” Rifkin wrote then, “is that with distributed generation, every family, business, neighborhood, and community in the world is potentially both a producer and a consumer and vendor of its own hydrogen and electricity.”

Rifkin is still an enthusiastic supporter of a hydrogen-based energy economy, and he notes with considerable satisfaction the emergence in the last few years of fuel-cell vehicles from the major manufacturers, and a still small but growing infrastructure of fueling stations to go with them.

He told me this week, “The hydrogen economy is becoming reality, and it signals a very substantial transition coming to pass. We’re moving out of internal-combustion vehicles and fossil fuels, and entering a new era of renewable energy, including the rollout of hydrogen cars and trucks. It’s a big shift in the paradigm. The transition takes us into a low-carbon economy, and it provides a framework of mobility and transport and gives us a more ecological approach to our future.”

Rifkin added that there’s a need to reduce fixed costs, “but fixed costs have plummeted.” Rifkin’s most recent book is The Zero Marginal Cost Society (2014), and he said he is seeing widespread reductions in the cost of renewable energy of all kinds. “The transition to renewables is readily at hand, even with oil at $30 a barrel,” he said.

Byron McCormick, who headed the development of fuel-cell cars at General Motors until his retirement in 2009, is an associate of Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends, and has written hydrogen studies for it. McCormick was a member of the Energy Department’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee until 2009 (when funding was briefly suspended), and helped develop the PEM fuel-cell technology now standard in fuel-cell cars.

McCormick tells me, “The industry is in the process of rolling out a set of wonderful product offerings. They are taking it a step at a time, which to my mind is exactly the right way to go. The trillions of dollars of current auto, fuel, supply base and energy-storage transition which these products portend require a careful, one-step-at-a-time approach. Make no mistake, the transition to hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric propulsion has begun in earnest.”

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