Thinking about hydrogen economies

The April 2020 issue of Ecogeneration magazine includes an article by Graham Palmer and me titled ‘How should we think about a hydrogen economy’. It’s based on our new book Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach. I’ve included an excerpt here, and the full article is available from the Ecogeneration website at the link above.

We have already seen two periods of hydrogen hype before – the first being the post-Apollo mission enthusiasm for hydrogen of the early 1970s, and the second being the Japanese and American enthusiasm for fuel cell vehicles from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. In neither case did hydrogen deployment reach sufficient scale to leave a residual hydrogen network. So how should we think about the current wave? Will deployment cross a critical threshold? Is this time different?

In our recent book, Energy Storage and Civilization, we don’t seek a decisive answer to the question of how hydrogen technologies will evolve – instead we step back to examine the foundational role of energy storage in economic systems and let readers form their own conclusions. Our aim is to reframe the role of storage and allow questions for further exploration.

We seek to challenge the dominant frame of reference that storage can be understood in technological terms alone, with its value defined solely in techno-economic terms and solely determined by profit-seeking actors.

According to the thesis proposed in our book, across history the forms of human social organisation recognisable as civilizations share, as a common enabler, the storage of their primary energy sources on a large scale. The levels of socio-political complexity achieved in the societies most people inhabit today are enabled by abundant and cheap energy.

But these societies are shaped also by the means of energy storage made possible by the physical characteristics of our principal primary energy sources. Energy storage is essential to the exercise of both physical and political power. It allows the distribution and control of power in time and space over large territories.

We argue that each distinct form of large-scale, socio-politically complex society evident in the historical record can be identified with a universal and ubiquitous form of energy storage, beginning from the Neolithic, through the period of industrialisation and into the Age of Petroleum.

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