"Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Chapter 5. Building the Solar/Hydrogen Economy: Introduction
In May of 2001, the Bush White House released with great fanfare a 20-year plan for the U.S. energy economy. It disappointed many people because it largely overlooked the enormous potential for raising energy efficiency. It also overlooked the huge potential of wind power, which is likely to add more to U.S. generating capacity over the next 20 years than coal does. The plan was indicative of the problems some governments are having in fashioning an energy economy that is compatible with the earth's ecosystem.1
Prepared under the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration's plan centered on expanding production of fossil fuels, something more appropriate for the early twentieth century than the early twenty-first. It emphasized the role of coal, but the authors were apparently unaware that world coal use peaked in 1996 and has declined some 7 percent since then as other countries have turned away from this fuel. Even China, which rivals the United States as a coal-burning country, has reduced its coal use by an estimated 14 percent since 1996.2
The energy future that I see is very different from the one outlined in the Bush energy plan. For example, the plan noted that the 2 percent of U.S. electricity generation that today comes from renewable sources, excluding hydropower, would increase to 2.8 percent in 2020. But months before the Bush energy plan was released, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) was projecting a staggering 60-percent growth in U.S. wind-generating capacity in 2001. Worldwide, use of wind power alone has multiplied nearly fourfold over the last five years, a growth rate matched only by the computer industry.3
Although the Bush energy plan does not reflect it, the world energy economy is on the edge of a major transformation. Historically, the twentieth century was the century of fossil fuels. Coal, already well established as a major fuel source in 1900, was joined by oil when the automobile came on the scene. It was not until 1967, however, that oil finally replaced coal as the workhorse of the world energy economy. Natural gas gained in popularity during the closing decades of the century as concern about urban air pollution and global climate change escalated, moving ahead of coal in 1999.4
As the new century begins, the Sun is setting on the fossil fuel era. The last several decades have shown a steady shift from coal, the most polluting and climate-disrupting fossil fuel, to oil, which is somewhat less environmentally disruptive, and then to natural gas, the cleanest and least climate-disrupting of the three. It is this desire for clean, climate-benign fuels—not the depletion of fossil fuels—that is driving the global transition to the solar/hydrogen age.5
In addition to world coal use peaking in 1996, oil production is expected to peak either in this decade or the next. Natural gas use will keep expanding somewhat longer because of its generous reserves and its popularity as a clean-burning, carbon-efficient fuel. Because it is a gas, it is also the ideal fuel for the transition from a carbon-based energy economy to one based on hydrogen. If it keeps expanding at 2 percent or so a year, as it has for the last decade, natural gas use will require the continued construction of pipelines and storage facilities—an infrastructure that can one day easily be adapted for hydrogen.6
Even the oil companies are now beginning to recognize that the time has come for an energy transition. After years of denying any link between fossil fuel burning and climate change, John Browne, the chief executive officer of British Petroleum (BP) announced his new position in a historic speech at Stanford University in May 1997. "My colleagues and I now take the threat of global warming seriously," said Browne. "The time to consider the policy dimensions of climate change is not when the link between greenhouse gases and climate change is conclusively proven, but when the possibility cannot be discounted and is taken seriously by the society of which we are a part. We in BP have reached that point." In February 1999, ARCO chief executive Michael Bowlin said at an energy conference in Houston, Texas, that the beginning of the end of the age of oil was in sight. He went on to discuss the need to shift from a carbon-based energy economy to a hydrogen-based one.7
Seth Dunn writes in World Watch magazine that a consortium of corporations led by Shell Hydrogen and DaimlerChrysler reached an agreement in 1999 with the government of Iceland to make that country the world's first hydrogen-powered economy. Shell is interested because it wants to begin developing its hydrogen production and distribution capacity, and DaimlerChrysler expects to have the first fuel cell-powered automobile on the market. Shell plans to open its first chain of hydrogen stations in Iceland.8
The signs of restructuring the global energy economy are unmistakable. Events are moving far faster than would have been expected even a few years ago, driven in part by the mounting evidence that the earth is indeed warming up and that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible.9
1. National Energy Policy Development Group, National Energy Policy (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 2001).
2. Coal consumption from John Pomfret, "Research Casts Doubt on China's Pollution Claim," Washington Post, 15 August 2001.
3. National Energy Policy Development Group, op. cit. note 1, p. 1-10; Christopher Flavin, "Wind Energy Growth Continues," in Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2001 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp. 44-45; American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), "President's Energy Plan is Useful First Step, Wind Energy Association Says," press release (Washington, DC: 17 May 2001).
4. Seth Dunn, "Fossil Fuel Use Falls Again," in Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 3, pp. 40-41.
5. Ibid.; Walter Youngquist, "Shale Oil: The Elusive Energy," in Hubbert Center Newsletter (M. King Hubbert Center, Golden, CO), no. 4, 1998, p. 2.
6. Colin Campbell predicts that oil production will peak by 2010, in Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere, "The End of Cheap Oil," Scientific American, March 1998, pp. 78-83; natural gas figures from Dunn, op. cit. note 4.
7. John Browne, Chief Executive, British Petroleum, speech delivered at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 19 May 1997; Michael Bowlin, speech to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, 18th annual meeting, 9 February 1999.
8. Seth Dunn, "The Hydrogen Experiment," World Watch, November/December 2000, pp. 14-25.
9. John Noble Wilford, "Ages-Old Icecap at North Pole Is Now Liquid, Scientists Find," New York Times, 19 August 2000.
Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute