Hydrogen Economy Needs Serious U.S. Commitment

Commentator Jeremy Rifkin thinks it's time to get the hydrogen economy into high gear. He says that in order for the United States to rid itself of its fossil fuel dependence, it needs to launch a program similar to President Kennedy's space race, where science, commercial interest and the federal government combine their efforts to accomplish a grand vision.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Commentator Jeremy Rifkin is author of "The Hydrogen Economy." He says private companies won't be able to realize a vision of an economy free of fossil fuels on their own.

JEREMY RIFKIN:

It's clear: We need to mobilize the financial resources, entrepreneurial talent and scientific know-how of the world to wean society off the fossil fuel grid. The reasons are obvious: global warming, the high price of oil and the growing geopolitical tensions in the Persian Gulf.

Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. Scientists call it the `forever fuel' because it never runs out. And when hydrogen's used to produce power, the only byproducts are pure water and heat. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells will usher in a third industrial revolution. Its impact will be as profound as the harnessing of coal and steam power in the 19th century and the oil-powered internal combustion engine in the 20th century.

But how do we create a hydrogen-based economy? A hydrogen energy regime requires a public-private partnership on a grand scale, the kind we marshalled in the Apollo space program when the US set its sights on landing a man on the moon in 10 years. The space program was a collaborative effort, and it worked. Now we should set an equally ambitious goal of creating a fully integrated hydrogen economy by 2030. California has already charged ahead with a program to become the first fully operational hydrogen economy in the United States. Several other states are following California's lead.

The problem is, the White House and Congress have barely weighed in. What's required is a massive research and development commitment at the federal level, in the order of billions of dollars spread out over the next few decades. We should enlist the nation's federal laboratories and universities in every aspect of the effort, along with industry and civil institutions. We should enact legislation at both the federal and state levels to provide special tax credits and other incentives to encourage start-up companies to stay in the field and established companies to enter the field. The federal government and states should purchase hydrogen fuel cell cars, buses and trucks for government fleets as well as stationary fuel cells for government buildings and facilities. Early procurement will help reduce costs and create economies of scale to stimulate broad commercial and consumer demand.

All of this is just the beginning. They key is to make a national commitment to a new energy regime commensurate with the magnitude of the task at hand. For those who question whether we can afford all this, perhaps we should turn the question around and ask: How do we even begin to calculate the lost opportunity if we say no to a sustainable energy future and a third industrial revolution?

MONTAGNE: Jeremy Rifkin is the author of "The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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