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The power to change

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At the close of the Part L consultation, a speech put things in perspective by examining the meta-narratives of energy policy

The marriage of hydrogen fuel cells with new communication technologies will create new cultural regimes and visions that the European Union could lead, according to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Hydrogen Economy, who was speaking at an international conference in London recently.

Hydrogen fuel cells, in which a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen produces power, producing water as the main byproduct, have become a focus for people concerned about future sources of energy and the predicted impending end of oil.

Rifkin, president of the Washington DC-based Foundation on Economic Trends, is one of the most articulate and best known hydrogen advocates. His lecture, in association with the Greater London Authority and London Hydrogen Partnership, was part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) Series Imagining a Cultural Commons.

Fuel cell web Rifkin is also author of The Age of Access and, most recently, The European Dream, which mirrors the fashionable arguments of political economist Susan George and historian Timothy Garton Ash that as the American political model fades, so the European model (which is somehow deemed to be more benign) should assert itself.

Opening his bravura and worldly lecture, which was synthesized from his various titles, he argued that the marriage of new energy sources with new communication forms is the dynamo of progress. He gave examples beginning with the Sumerians and ending summarily with CO 2. Today, he said, the internet has 'connected the central nervous system of the planet', and the hydrogen fuel cell is its natural partner. Just as the personal computer is about personal information, fuel cells will be personal and peer-to-peer, he argued, allowing people to generate their own power and sell any excess back to the grid.

He explained why new energy forms were needed, citing global warming, which he believes is partly a consequence of burning fossil fuels, and the prospect of oil running out.

Returning to his earlier thread, he argued that a 'new energy regime is in the offing'. Although dismissing nuclear power, he also noted that renewable sources of energy aren't consistent, and concluded that hydrogen is critical to the future. The adoption of hydrogen 'will require concerted activity by governments', and he cited favourably legislation in California mandating by 2009 nearzero emissions for cars sold there.

Rifkin, who was an informal adviser to then European Union president Romano Prodi, argued that the EU could take a lead in this new energy economy. 'New energy regimes go together with new cultural regimes and visions, ' he said, noting that the EU was the first civilisation not born out of violence, and the first area of the world to have a global view. He argued that the EU has the cultural basis - which he characterised as participatory, multilateral, inclusive, and based on sustainable development - for the changes we need for the economic migration to hydrogen.

There is a 'new European dream emerging', he concluded, and contrasted this with the US where he said the 'American dream has unravelled in terms of division of wealth', and many of its supposed virtues are increasingly seen as drawbacks or impediments.

'There is a golden goose here, ' Rifkin said. He envisioned 'the integration of the infrastructure of the biggest internal market from the Irish coast to the Russian steppes', with a single transportation grid for power and communication.

EU get off of my cloud Rifkin is one of the most thoughtful and practical advocates for hydrogen-based energy, but his analysis and strategy fall down in a number of areas. Although culture is an important element in technological and social transformation, the elements of European culture he lauds - particularly inclusiveness and sustainable development - are intellectual or practical impediments to progress. Compared with the 18th century radicalism of US culture - encompassing freedom of speech, assembly and worship, individual autonomy and protection from the state, equitable justice and jury trials - contemporary European culture is conservative and uncertain.

Key aspects of contemporary European culture Rifkin did not mention include undue risk consciousness and reliance on the precautionary principle, assumption of (and sometimes revelling in) worst case scenarios, and a tendency to blame others for problems rather than try to realistically solve them.

Not that they don't affect the US as well, but they are impediments to the scale, imagination and quality of innovation we need in energy and other areas.

There is also a fundamental error in the way that Rifkin and others discuss hydrogen. In reality it is a technology for storing energy, rather than a source of energy. Hydrogen is abundant in combination with other elements, but needs to be separated from them to be used in fuel cells.

Compared to the extraction and processing of coal or oil, this process consumes much more energy relative to the amount subsequently generated in the fuel cell. Thus the hydrogen economy argument assumes another substantial form of energy generation. It is not clear that this can be supplied from established renewable sources or that Europe has the will to find and implement new sources of energy.

There is a kernel of inspiration in Rifkin's vision of an integrated energy and communication grid across Europe, and the scale of his vision is absent in most government thinking. But his technologically driven approach and lack of understanding of contemporary culture create too many red herrings.

Nico Macdonald is a design and technology consultant. Visit www. spy. co. uk

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