The third industrial revolution

We need a new energy agenda for the 21st century, argues climate change policy guru Jeremy Rifkin.

We are approaching the sunset of the oil era in the first half of the 21st century. The price of oil on global markets continues to climb and its peak is within sight in the coming decades.

At the same time, the dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is raising the earth's temperature and threatening an unprecedented change in the chemistry of the planet and global climate, with ominous consequences for the future of human civilisation and the ecosystems of the Earth. Looking to the future, every government will need to explore new energy paths and establish new economic models with the goal of achieving as close to zero carbon emissions as possible.

The great pivotal economic changes in world history have occurred when new energy regimes converge with new communication regimes. When that convergence happens, society is restructured in wholly new ways.

The coming together of coal-powered steam technology and the print press gave birth to the first industrial revolution. First-generation electrical forms of communication - the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, electric typewriters, calculators - converged with the introduction of oil and the internal combustion engine, becoming the communications command and control mechanism for organising and marketing the second industrial revolution.

Today, the same design principles and smart technologies that made possible the Internet and vast 'distributed' global communication networks are just beginning to be used to reconfigure the world's power grids, so that people can produce renewable energy and share it peer-to-peer, creating a new, decentralised form of energy use.

In Europe, we need to envision a future in which millions of individuals can collect and produce locally generated renewable energy in their homes, offices, factories, and vehicles, store that energy in the form of hydrogen, and share their power generation with each other across a Europe-wide intelligent intergrid.

It is often asked whether renewable energy can, in the long run, provide enough power to run a national or global economy. Just as second-generation information systems grid technologies allow businesses to connect thousands of desktop computers, creating far more distributed computing power than even the most powerful centralised computers, millions of local producers of renewable energy, with access to intelligent utility networks, can potentially generate and share far more distributed power than the older centralised forms of energy - oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear.

The creation of a renewable energy, partially stored in the form of hydrogen and distributed via smart intergrids, opens the door to a third industrial revolution, and should have as powerful an economic multiplier effect in the 21st century as its revolutionary predecessors.

Hydrogen solution

Renewable forms of energy - solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves, and biomass - make up the first of the three pillars of this third revolution. While these sunrise energies still account for a small percentage of the global mix, they are growing rapidly as governments mandate targets and benchmarks for their widespread introduction into the market, and their falling costs make them increasingly competitive. Billions of Euros of public and private capital are pouring into research, development and market penetration, as businesses and homeowners seek to reduce their carbon footprint and become more energy-efficient and independent.

The introduction of the renewable energy pillar of the third industrial revolution requires the simultaneous introduction of a second pillar. To maximise renewable energy and to minimise cost, it will be necessary to develop storage methods that allow conversion of intermittent supplies into reliable assets. Batteries, differentiated water pumping and other media can provide limited storage capacity. There is, however, one storage medium that is widely available and can be relatively efficient. Hydrogen is the universal medium that 'stores' all forms of renewable energy to assure that a stable and reliable supply is available for power generation and, equally importantly, for transport.

The crucial point to emphasise is that a renewable energy society becomes viable to the extent that part of that energy can be stored in the form of hydrogen. That's because
renewable energy is intermittent. The sun isn't always shining, the wind isn't always blowing, water isn't always flowing, and agricultural yields vary.

When renewable energy isn't available, electricity can't be generated and economic activity grinds to a halt. But, if some of the electricity being generated (when renewable energy is abundant) can be used to extract hydrogen from water, which can then be stored for later use, society will have a continuous supply of power. Hydrogen can also be extracted from biomass and similarly stored.

The European Commission recognises that increasing reliance on renewable forms of energy would be greatly facilitated by the development of hydrogen fuel cell storage capacity. So, in October 2007, the EC announced an ambitious public/private partnership to speed the commercial introduction of a hydrogen economy in the 27 member-states of the European Union, with the primary focus on producing hydrogen from renewable sources of energy.

By benchmarking a shift to renewable energy and funding an aggressive hydrogen fuel-cell technology R&D programme, the EU has erected the first two pillars of the third industrial revolution.

The third pillar

The third pillar, the reconfiguration of the European power grid, along the lines of the Internet, allowing businesses and home-owners to produce their own energy and share it with each other, is just now being tested by power companies in Europe.

The smart intergrid is made up of three critical components. Minigrids allow homeowners, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and large scale economic enterprises to produce renewable energy locally - through solar cells, wind, small hydro, animal and agricultural waste, garbage - and use it off-grid for their own electricity needs. Smart metering allows local producers to more effectively sell their energy back to the main power grid, as well as accept electricity from the grid, making the flow of electricity bi-directional.

The next phase in smart grid technology is embedding sensing devices and chips throughout the grid system, connecting every electrical appliance. Software allows the entire power grid to know how much energy is being used, at any time, anywhere on the grid. This interconnectivity can be used to redirect energy uses and flows during peaks and lulls, and even to adjust to the price changes of electricity from moment to moment.

In the future, intelligent utility networks will also be increasingly connected to moment-to-moment weather changes - recording wind alterations, solar flux and ambient temperature - giving the power network the ability to adjust electricity flow continuously, to both external weather conditions and consumer demand.

For example, if the power grid is experiencing peak energy use and possible overload because of too much demand, the software can direct a homeowner's washing machine to go down by one cycle per load or reduce the air conditioning by one degree. Consumers who agree to slight adjustments in their electricity use receive credits on their bills.

Since the true price of electricity on the grid varies during any 24-hour period, moment-to- moment energy information opens the door to 'dynamic pricing', allowing consumers to increase or drop their energy use automatically, depending upon the price of electricity on the grid. Up-to-the-moment pricing also allows local minigrid producers of energy to either automatically sell energy back to the grid or go off the grid altogether. The smart intergrid will not only give end users more power over their energy choices, but also create new energy efficiencies in the distribution of electricity.

Being first to market will position the European Union as a leader in the third industrial revolution, giving it the commercial edge in the export of green technological know-how and equipment around the world.

Producing a new generation of renewable energy technologies, manufacturing portable and stationary fuel cells, reinventing the automobile, transforming Europe's millions of buildings into power plants to produce renewable energy for internal consumption or distribution back to the grid, reconfiguring the electrical power grid as an intelligent utility network, as well as producing all of the accompanying technologies, goods and services that make up a high-tech third industrial revolution economy, will have an economic multiplier effect that stretches well toward the middle decades of the 21st century.

The key question that every nation needs to ask is where they want their country to be ten years from now: in the sunset energies and industries of the second industrial revolution or the sunrise energies and industries of the third industrial revolution?

The third industrial revolution is the end-game that takes the world out of the old carbon and uranium-based energies into a non-polluting, sustainable future for the human race.

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