The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind

How has the global energy economy changed — and what does it mean for the future?

May 11, 2002

How has the global energy economy changed — and what does it mean for the future?

The world energy economy is on the edge of a major transformation. Historically, the 20th century was the century of fossil fuels. Coal — already well established as a major fuel source all the way back in 1900 — was joined by oil when the automobile came on the scene.

It was not until 1967, however, that oil finally replaced coal as the workhorse of the world’s energy economy. Natural gas gained in popularity during the closing decades of the 20th century. As concern about urban air pollution and global climate change escalated, natural gas moved ahead of coal in terms of energy usage in 1999.

Thus, as the new century begins, the trend is clear: The sun is setting on the fossil fuel era. The last several decades have shown a steady shift from coal — the most polluting and climate-disrupting fossil fuel — to oil, which is somewhat less environmentally disruptive, and then to natural gas, the cleanest and least climate-disrupting of the three.

It is this desire for clean, climate-benign fuels — not the depletion of fossil fuels — that is driving the global transition to the solar/hydrogen age.

In addition to world coal use which reached its peak in 1996, oil production is expected to peak either in this decade or the next. Natural gas use will keep expanding somewhat longer because of its generous reserves and its popularity as a clean-burning, carbon-efficient fuel.

Because it is a gas, it is also the ideal fuel for the transition from a carbon-based energy economy to one based on hydrogen. If it keeps expanding at 2% or so a year, as it has for the last decade, natural gas use will require the continued construction of pipelines and storage facilities — an infrastructure that can one day easily be adapted for hydrogen.

Seth Dunn writes in Worldwatch magazine that a consortium of corporations led by Shell Hydrogen and DaimlerChrysler reached an agreement in 1999 with the government of Iceland to make that country the world’s first hydrogen-powered economy.

Shell is interested because it wants to begin developing its hydrogen production and distribution capacity. And DaimlerChrysler expects to have the first fuel cell-powered automobile on the market. Shell plans to open its first chain of hydrogen stations in Iceland.

Another area with enormous potential for efficiency improvements is automobile fuel. In the United States, which has one of the world’s most inefficient vehicle fleets, the new 2001 car models get an estimated 24.5 miles per gallon. That is down from the peak of 26.2 miles per gallon in 1987.

Thus fuel efficiency dropped 6%. But it did so at a time when — given the advances in technology and growing concern about global warming — it should have been rising.

At the same time, the fuel efficiency of the 2001 models sold in the United States varies widely. They range from the hybrid electric Honda Insight, which gets 68 miles per gallon on the highway and 61 in the city, to a Ferrari, with 13 miles per gallon on the highway and 8 in the city.

Just a tad better than the Ferrari in the fuel ratings are several large sport utility vehicles. The more efficient cars on the market, such as the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, easily double the average fuel efficiency of the U.S. fleet — underlining the enormous potential for fuel savings.

Regardless of the source of energy, it makes economic and environmental sense to make sure the energy is used efficiently. At a minimum, the world should be making all the investments in energy efficiency that are profitable with current prices. That alone would drop world energy use by a substantial amount.

Once we get cheap electricity from wind, we can use it to electrolyze water, splitting the water molecule into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen is the simplest of fuels and, unlike coal or oil, is entirely carbon-free. It is the fuel of choice for the new, highly efficient fuel cell engine on which every major auto manufacturer is now working. DaimlerChrysler plans to market fuel cell-powered cars by 2003. Ford, Toyota and Honda will probably not be far behind.

Surplus wind power can be stored as hydrogen and used in fuel cells or gas turbines to generate electricity, leveling supply when winds are variable. Wind, once seen as a cornerstone of the new energy economy, is likely to become its foundation. (For more information on wind power, see Chapter 5: Building the Solar/Hydrogen Economy in Eco-Economy.)

With the advancing technologies for harnessing wind and powering motor vehicles with hydrogen, we can now see a future in which U.S. farmers and ranchers supply not only much of the country’s electricity, but much of the hydrogen for its fleet of automobiles as well. For the first time, the United States has the technology to divorce itself from Middle Eastern oil.

Natural gas companies are well positioned to be leaders in building the solar/hydrogen economy. They may someday invest in wind electric generation in remote regions that have a wealth of wind — and then use that electricity to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen.

This could then be exported in liquid form, much as natural gas is now compressed into liquid form for shipping in tankers.

In the emerging eco-economy, hydrogen will be the dominant fuel, replacing oil, much like oil replaced coal and coal replaced wood. Since hydrogen can be stored and used as needed, it provides perfect support for an energy economy with wind and solar power as the main pillars.

If this pollution-free, carbon-free energy source can he developed sooner rather than later, many of the world’s present energy-related problems can be solved. Electricity and hydrogen can together provide energy in all the forms needed to operate a modern economy — whether powering computers, fueling cars or manufacturing steel.