Jeremy Rifkins 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 Companys generating capacity relies on coal. On one hand, theres 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 were heading toward peak oil. Thats No. 1. We dont know how soon. The optimists say we dont peak on oil until 2037. Thats the wisdom of the International Energy Agency, thats the optimists. ... [Peak oil is] when half the oils used up and of course thats the top of the bell curve. Thats when its over because you cant afford the price after youve 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 whos right.
As I said in the book [The Hydrogen Economy], theyre only arguing about 20 years, its 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.
Whats happening with most power companies is theyre making a shift to natural-gas-fired power plants because theyre 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 whats 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 doesnt buy you much time, and it still emits [carbon dioxide]. So now the power utility companies and energy industry have to deal with this: Theres plenty of other fossil fuel. Theres coal all over the world. Theres heavy oil in Venezuela, and theres 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 theres plenty of oil sands in Canada; theyre competitive at 12 [dollars] a barrel. Theres 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 theres one statistic that I would share with Southern [Co.] and with your readers, because I think its the single most devastating piece of information that weve ever been privy to in the history of the Homo sapien species.
Now, thats 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 Earths 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 Im not sure we have emotionally understood the nature of this experiment that humans have with fossil fuels. I think this is a policy question. Its become a wonk issue. Its an issue that political parties and NGOs debate. But Im 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.
Hip hip, hooray! Also, kick rocks Sutton
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