The editor's view
Karel Beckman is editor-in-chief of European Energy Review.
A new energy era
‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’, is what Mark Twain famously wrote to the newspaper who had announced his demise. In an interview in this issue of European Energy Review, celebrated environmentalist author Jeremy Rifkin announces the death of the great fossil fuel era in human history. An exaggeration as well?
Rifkin’s vision is that we are on the threshold of a ‘third industrial revolution’, essentially a combination of the communications revolution of the last fifteen years with an energy revolution. The ‘new energy regime’, as Rifkin sees it, will be based on decentralised, ‘distributed’, sustainable energies, ranging from the sun and the wind, to garbage, biomass, geothermal power, wave and tidal power, all of which are locally available. These sources are to be connected to each other with technologically advanced ‘smart grids’ and combined with hydrogen batteries as a universal means of energy storage. Every house and every building, Rifkin predicts, will become its own power supplier. The old ‘centralised’ forms of energy – oil, gas, coal-fired and nuclear power plants will become obsolete.Science fiction? Rifkin says we have no choice – it’s either the third industrial revolution – or the end of civilisation. This is because climate change will spiral out of control if we don’t act now – and oil will become unaffordable as production is about to peak. This leaves us a ‘window’ of ten to fifteen years to renounce fossil fuels and escape catastrophe.
Now this last seems to me overly pessisimistic, if not downright apocalyptic. In my view, contrary to what many people claim, the science of global warming is by no means settled. Read the new book ‘The Deniers’ by the Canadian journalist and environmental activist Lawrence Solomon to find out what I mean. Nor do I believe that we are about to run out of oil or gas.
Nevertheless, even if one does not share his assumptions about climate change and peak oil, there is much in Rifkin’s vision of the future that makes sense. Surely a society based on distributed sustainable energy is less polluting than one based on fossil fuels. Surely such a society also provides greater ‘security of supply’, not to mention opportunities for local employment and innovation. Moreover, Rifkin has a point when he argues that there are huge problems associated with nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, and corn ethanol – to name just a few of the ‘alternatives’ currently being touted for the fossil fuel economy. He is also right to point out that, for all the success of our centralised energy system, 1.6 billion people still don’t have access to electricity.
Let’s keep in mind, too, that the World Energy Outlook 2006, the reference publication of the International Energy Agency, starts with this rather chilling sentence: ‘The energy future which we are creating is unsustainable’.
Thus it is a combination of economic and social factors that is pushing the world into a new energy era. For example, already in many countries office buildings and houses are being built that have no connection to the electricity or gas grid. Once this trend gains momentum, the change will become irreversible. The transition will happen more slowly than many people hope for – but faster than many others expect.