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Can We Afford to Wait for Hydrogen Energy?

By Ignacio Avalos*

This clean energy source is at the center of a new utopia, but it will take decades before hydrogen is consolidated as a true energy alternative.

CARACAS - An oil crisis is just around the corner, warn an ever-increasing number of experts. According to British researcher Colin Campbell, member of the Oil Depletion Analysis Center, the entire planet has been explored to the core and we should be assured that there are no major oil fields to be discovered, an assessment shared by many other specialized organizations, including the U.S. Geological Survey.

Meanwhile, demand keeps growing (our civilization continues to be addicted to fossil fuel consumption) to the degree that if China and India, for example, expand their economies as they aim to, achieving the same per capita energy consumption as South Korea, according to Fortune magazine they would need 119 million barrels of oil a day, that is, nearly 50 percent more than the world daily consumption (indigestion?) today.

Hydrogen could appear as an alternative, say experts, given that the forecasts related to natural gas are the same as they are for petroleum. There are already important advances in hydrogen technology (they say an equivalent to 10 percent of petroleum output is produced this way), and possesses undoubted advantages over petroleum and other energy sources.

It is a clean resource from the environmental point of view, because it represents the final step in the process of "decarbonization" (from wood to gas, passing through coal and petroleum), because it is energy without carbon, the contaminating element par excellence.

Hydrogen is practically inexhaustible and is distributed equally around the planet, which means its use could be more democratic, unlike, say those in the know, the situation of petroleum concentration.

An economy based on hydrogen would produce deep changes in global organization, according to forecasts, because it would make possible a redistribution of power and greater equality worldwide.

Thus is announced the possibility of a new and improved society, thanks to hydrogen. It is, once again, the social utopia from the side of technological determinism, in other words, with disregard for the social relations of dominance.

Hydrogen forms part of the U.S. argument against the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that aims to confront the serious consequences of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions: the emergence of new viruses and diseases, increased desertification, freshwater shortages, rising sea levels. Needless to say, the production and consumption of petroleum weigh heavily in this problem.

Eleven years after being proposed, the Protocol cannot be enacted because of the reticence of the United States.

Not long after taking office, President George W. Bush said crassly that the United States would not sign an agreement that conspired against the growth of the country's gross domestic product. However, his position is now more refined. On the one hand he plays down the dangers inherent in global warming as well as the need to take urgent measures. On the other he wields the alternative of an energy source based on hydrogen. So why sign a treaty so damaging to U.S. interests?

If the majority of the scientific community is correct about the seriousness of the environmental imbalances and we are in a race against time, it is worth wondering, given the 15 to 20 years it will take to consolidate hydrogen as an energy option, what will be the consequences of ignoring the matter and not signing the Kyoto Protocol? Many fear they will be very severe and likely irreversible.

* Ignacio Avalos is a former minister of science and technology of Venezuela.

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