»Third Industrial Revolution.«

Hydrogen is a crucial pillar on which a third Industrial Revolution will be based, says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends (FOET).

Hydrogen is a crucial pillar on which a third Industrial Revolution will be based, says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends (FOET).

Mr. Rifkin, is hydrogen the key to the third Industrial Revolution?

Hydrogen technology is one of several keys. In my opinion, it’s one of the five pillars on which the third Industrial Revolution will be based. Without hydrogen and fuel cells, we will not be able to take the steps that are necessary to establish a sustainable energy system and new economic structures. However, this technology can only be viewed in conjunction with other factors. The first of the five pillars is the generation of energy from renewable sources. The second pillar is a structural transformation that will ultimately result in energy production in buildings. Hydrogen as an energy source and a storage medium is the third pillar, and the fourth is the intelligent networking of energy flows. Finally, the fifth pillar is mobility with sustainable drive systems like those that utilize fuel cells. As you can see, none of these aspects can be considered completely independently of the others. It all adds up to an interactive system without any stand-alone solutions.

Such a fundamental transformation requires a new attitude toward hydrogen technology. Are we ready for that?

I think so. Consider the political aspect: Germany began pushing for the funding of hydrogen technology at a very early stage of the game, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated her intention to strongly promote the third Industrial Revolution. The situation is now similar throughout the entire EU and in other countries around the world. But Germany has a head start here, and I believe it could spearhead the third Industrial Revolution in the years ahead. German industry has also recognized the importance of this issue – and here I’m thinking about companies like Daimler, Linde, and RWE.

How has European hydrogen policy developed over the past ten years?

A very important development is that people are now asking how energy from new sources can be stored in the future. This question arises because the output of solar, hydro, and wind power facilities fluctuates constantly. It will be very difficult to compensate for such fluctuations if you don’t have efficient storage media. For example, what’s going to happen when you get several cloudy days with no wind, and low water levels? We discussed this issue extensively in 2003, when I served as an advisor to the European Union. The EU responded by launching a € 2 billion research and development program.

What technology do you think should be used to make this energy storage possible?

Hydrogen is the solution to this problem. This molecular element can be found in abundance throughout the entire universe. Depending on the amount of energy that’s available, gaseous hydrogen can be produced locally as an energy storage medium and also be easily stored. When used in fuel cells, for example, it will be converted back into electricity as needed. In view of the huge advantages offered by such a modular and decentralized energy system, the argument that double conversion from electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity is not efficient makes no sense. If you look at the traditional power grid with its centralized production and rigid structures and then compare it with the flexible networks of distributed power systems, you’ll immediately see the benefits offered by this new form of energy supply. Of course, depending on the application in question, other technologies will be used along with hydrogen as storage media. These include batteries, super capacitors, and flywheels. However, only hydrogen can make energy availability so flexible that we can use energy like a digital resource. A battery, on the other hand, can never provide such a high level of access.

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