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Life Without Oil: Towards a nuclear-hydrogen economy

Alternative Energy

The great energy transition begins now. Oil will go into decline within a few years, and our economies will be craving energy over the next half century. Renewable sources cannot possibly fill the oil void, and if we want to maintain our economies we have only one choice: nuclear power. Taking a historical view, the eventual ascendance of nuclear power is probably inevitable. It completes our energy trend from wood to coal to oil. The extrapolation of this trend of increasing energy efficiency does not backtrack from oil to wind, solar and biomass, but continues through to nuclear–and when we finally crack the problem of controlling nuclear fusion, we will be propelled yet another step. I’m not sure this is the best option because if we do manage to replace oil with nuclear power, it will enable us to continue destroying the planet in hundreds of ways. Our carbon emissions would decline significantly, which would be great, but our consumption of most other resources would resume. Nonetheless, if you want to reduce the size of the coming collapse, here is your one choice for energy. Take it or leave it. The challenges are enormous because our nuclear capacity is grossly in sufficient to replace oil. There are serious political, economic, and technological hurdles to overcome in order to bring nuclear power up to a scale that can deliver the energy we need, but it does have the potential to become the world’s dominant energy source. As markets demand energy despite high prices, it will become clear, even to the most stubborn observers, that nuclear power is the only source with sufficient capacity. The nuclear debate has already begun to shift. It was strongly influenced by the inevitable―and justified―fears following Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. The fervor of the anti¬nuclear movement, given focus by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, has balanced the debate decisively against nuclear power since the 1970s. But the tide is turning. Even many environmentalists are now promoting nuclear power, thanks to its relatively small carbon footprint. And the tide will continue to turn as investment is diverted increasingly toward the nuclear industry. The Obama administration, in March 2010, announced secured loans for the construction of two new nuclear power plants in Georgia, the first such proposals in three decades. The first important question related to the nuclear industry is not whether or not we should invest in nuclear power but whether or not we will be able to limit the environmental disaster of uranium mining and find suitable ways of managing nuclear waste. Part of the solution to both these problems could come from new generation reactors that require less ore and generate less waste, but when energy is scarce, the markets will demand we construct whatever reactor designs we have. There is an urgent need for research and development to improve the safety of this technology in advance. Governments must, in advance of the inevitable adoption of increasing volumes of nuclear power, support the infrastructure that is needed to make it as safe as possible. The second important question is how long it will take to revive the nuclear industry. I expect a significant time lag and do not think nuclear power can be brought on line in step with the decline of oil. Generating sufficient volumes of energy is not the only problem our economies face, because not all sources of energy are easily directed to all applications. We will also require effective solutions to the problem of transportation. Trains, planes, and automobiles all run on liquid fuels, which are refined directly from oil, and it is extremely difficult to develop versatile transportation systems that use alternative systems. If our new energy model is based on the generation of electricity, the problem remains of putting this into vehicles. Electric vehicles will play a role, but I believe that the only viable, long¬term solution to this problem is hydrogen. Hydrogen has the distinct disadvantage that it cannot be simply pumped out of the ground or sucked out of the atmosphere. There is no source of free hydrogen, so, first, it has to be made. Hydrogen, then, is not a source of energy at all but merely a carrier of energy. Consequently, the future of energy generation does not rest with hydrogen, but the future of energy delivery might. Hydrogen can be made from natural gas, and this technology is in place, although natural gas will continue to be devoured by other industries as long as it lasts. Hydrogen can also be made from coal, and this is likely to be the first major source. Hydrogen will not flow in great volumes from coal and gas, but it will encourage technology to improve and infrastructure to be developed. Lastly, hydrogen can be made from water, using electricity generated from any source, including nuclear, and when we can generate and handle large volumes of hydrogen from water, the recovery will be under way in earnest. Hydrogen is actually a much more efficient fuel than either gasoline or natural gas, so an economy based on hydrogen has the potential to be much more productive than an economy based on oil–eventually. In The Hydrogen Economy, Jeremy Rifkin describes the eventual transition into a hydrogen economy as a process of decarbonization. Again, our historical model of wood-to-coal-to-oil has delivered a much more efficient and productive energy source at each turn. These fuels have come with progressively more hydrogen and less carbon. Natural gas contains only a quarter the amount of carbon contained in coal. Hydrogen, of course, contains none.

Looking under the hood of a hydrogen car

Looking under the hood of a hydrogen car
Like this

The most promising mechanism for putting hydrogen to work in vehicles is through fuel cells, although there remain some significant technological barriers to fuel-cell design and production. The cost of a fuel cell that is sufficiently lightweight and powerful remains prohibitive for production-run vehicles. This is a classic catch-22 situation in which adoption cannot occur until infrastructure is in place, and infrastructure cannot be put in place until a critical mass of adoption has occurred. I expect this problem to be resolved, however, when sufficient research and development, driven by economic demand, is brought to bear, although this is not certain. Hydrogen planes have flown, and hydrogen cars and buses have run. The space shuttle burns hydrogen fuel. Iceland has announced its plan to become the first hydrogen economy in the world and runs a small fleet of hydrogen buses. The technology is available and simply needs to be perfected and adopted. It will take a long time to make this transition, but as we finally emerge from the great recession, I foresee a much more productive form of power driving the world’s economies. Each previous energy transition, despite the fact that it eventually delivered massive gains in efficiency and productivity, was problematic at the time. Coal, for example, was initially considered far inferior to wood, and it was only when wood fell into short supply that the “wonders” of coal were revealed. Oil took some time to make it from the lab bench to the gas tank, and even the transition into the petroleum interval was slow at first. The transition to a nuclear-hydrogen economy faces obstacles, and only time will tell how well we solved them when the pressure was on. Our energy future will eventually see the passing of the petroleum interval and the birth of the nuclear-hydrogen economy.

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8 Comments on "Life Without Oil: Towards a nuclear-hydrogen economy"

  1. DC on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 9:56 am 

    As soon as you ‘Jeremy Rifkin and hydrogen’ in any article, you may as well stop reading, since the only thing your going to get is a lot of hydrogen gas blown up your butt. You would think people would just consult an actual scientist or engineer(not one being paid by oil companies or GM of course, and they will tell you, hydrogen is not an energy source and it provides far less energy than it primary energy souce, usually electricty. Peak nuclear is not all that far off either, the hydrogen economy is a dead letter. In fact, any serious attempt to convert our nuclear-fossil fuel economey to a nuclear-H2 one, will only accellerate the collapse of our industrial civilization. In every single case, useing hydrogen to power ANYYTHING is far more expensive and wasteful than simply useing its primary energy source. Want to cook stuff, use the natural gas directly, same for electric cooking. Want to drive around, use an EV, its far less expensive, and vastly more efficent. Hyrdogen planes?, no thanks, take an electrically powered train instead.

    The most troubleing thing about this above is how eager the write is to promote the idea that in a permanent economic contraction, the only way back to the good times, is to invest in two of the most complex and expensive energy schemes known to man, nuclear and and the fraudulent Hydrogen economy….yeesh…

  2. cipi604 on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 1:09 pm 

    about this article: hahahahahhahaahha … hahahahahahahah …. hahahahahahh

  3. Poopypants on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 1:29 pm 

    We’re doomed.

  4. BillT on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 6:15 pm 

    It Appears your readers are smarter than you are…lol. Hydrogen is another scam perpetrated on the taxpayer and going no where. If an honest energy assessment were done on ANY renewable, few would evben justify a thought, let alone serious consideration. ALL projects start with mining something somewhere and then processing it and them making something out of the product and then actually putting it to use and then maintaining it ad then replacing it eventually. Energy input is necessary at EVERY step in the process, and if you are really serious, you have to go back to the mining of the materials to make the mining equipment. EVENTUALLY…all of it will need replaced to make ANY energy. Can you say pre 20th century living?

  5. Hugh Culliton on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 9:13 pm 

    Dude’s forgotten that all those fuel cells and nuke plants that he thinks will save us, require tremendous inputs of oil. The real crime is that he’ll sucker a lot of governments into buying his fairy tale and the necessary preperations we will need to make in order to cushon the transition to post-oil, will be neglected untill its too late. I’m going back to my garden now.

  6. george on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 11:02 pm 

    it would take 2000 nuclear generating stations to replace our daily use of 400 million (yes MILLION) gallons of gasoline. what do we have now ? 102 ?
    get used to going nowhere.

  7. Bob Owens on Thu, 28th Apr 2011 12:59 am 

    What a stupid article. There isn’t one fact in it. A wet dream gone mad. We can’t get insulation into all the homes on our planet that need it and he is pushing untested new nuclear reactors burning fuel that remains radioactive for thousands of years. Along with platinum coated fuel cells that will keep our cars running with Hydrogen! I’m laughing on the outside; crying on the inside.

  8. cusano on Thu, 28th Apr 2011 5:37 am 

    We don’t have time to transition to anything that will keep our life style as we know it.

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