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Q&A with Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin’s 2002 book, The Hydrogen Economy, trumpets the prospect of an energy future in which clean, renewable energy could be stored by companies — and even individuals — in the form of hydrogen.

A well-known social critic and author, Rifkin is a lecturer at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant to major companies. He spoke last week with CL Editor Ken Edelstein:

Some 70 percent of Southern Company’s generating capacity relies on coal. On one hand, there’s plenty of coal in the United States. On the other, coal emits a huge amount of greenhouse gas, which seems likely to face some sort of regulation soon. So does Southern Co.’s reliance on coal bode well or poorly for the company future?

I think it bodes poorly. Let me put it this way: The power companies and energy companies understand that we’re heading toward peak oil. That’s No. 1. We don’t know how soon. The optimists say we don’t peak on oil until 2037. That’s the wisdom of the International Energy Agency, that’s the optimists. ... [Peak oil is] when half the oil’s used up and of course that’s the top of the bell curve. That’s when it’s over because you can’t afford the price after you’ve reached peak oil production. The pessimists now — some of the world-class geologists, some of the best in the business — are relooking at the numbers. They say, “Well, we might peak as early 2010 to 2020.” I have no idea who’s right.

As I said in the book [The Hydrogen Economy], they’re only arguing about 20 years, it’s still a small window. They do agree that when we do peak, two-thirds of the reserves of oil will be in the Middle East, which is politically unstable.

What’s happening with most power companies is they’re making a shift to natural-gas-fired power plants because they’re cheap. But this shift — I think 270 natural-gas-fired power plants were scheduled to come on line in the decade — these are decisions that were made early in the decade before the price of gas started rising. What should have been anticipated is that the price of gas would absolutely shadow oil, which is exactly what’s happening. Gas is shadowing oil on the prices, and gas is finite and will probably peak in shadow of oil.

Natural gas burns a little [cleaner than coal], and I would certainly say that as a transition strategy, I would certainly favor natural gas to either oil-burning plants or coal-burning plants. But natural gas doesn’t buy you much time, and it still emits [carbon dioxide]. So now the power utility companies and energy industry have to deal with this: There’s plenty of other fossil fuel. There’s coal all over the world. There’s heavy oil in Venezuela, and there’s oil sands in Alberta. Of course, as you know, Canada is the largest supplier of energy to the United States, not the Middle East. ... So there’s plenty of oil sands in Canada; they’re competitive at 12 [dollars] a barrel. There’s plenty of heavy oil. The problem is they are dirty and they emit a lot more CO2.

Now, with that as a premise, here is the statistic that I think is a relevant statistic to the question you raise. ... You get so many statistics over so many years, you get totally insensitized to them after a while, but there’s one statistic that I would share with Southern [Co.] and with your readers, because I think it’s the single most devastating piece of information that we’ve ever been privy to in the history of the Homo sapien species.

Now, that’s a very audacious statement, but wait until you hear the statistic: Last year, the journal Science published an article. Scientists went down to the Antarctic, and they dug under the ice into the landmass to get a pristine picture of the geological record of the planet. And what they found was absolutely overwhelming in every sense of the word. They found that the concentration of global warming gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere today is greater than at any time in the last 650,000 years. Homo sapiens have been here less than 150,000 years, so I’m not sure we have emotionally understood the nature of this experiment that humans have with fossil fuels. I think this is a policy question. It’s become a wonk issue. It’s an issue that political parties and NGOs debate. But I’m not sure the Homo sapien species, that we as a whole, have grasped the enormity of this shift in the chemistry of the planet with the full implications of what it means in terms of the habitability of this planet by human beings in the 21st century or for there on out.


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