American economist Jeremy Rifkin’s book, ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’, promises to change the world in a collaborative, democratic manner. The end of the cheap oil-coal-gas era is drawing nigh and the world now needs to reinvent its focus on renewable energies, the author tells Jyoti Malhotra
Why do we need a third industrial revolution in the first place?
We are seeing the sun set on the second industrial revolution. It’s almost frightening to watch it from a business point of view. At the same time, it is exciting from an opportunity viewpoint. The second industrial revolution’s energies — coal, gas, oil and uranium — are maturing. Then, there are the commensurate carbon dioxide emissions contributing towards climate change. Moreover, the technologies are very old.
Several years ago, in the European Union (EU), we began to ask how new economic revolutions occur. We found when energy regimes converge on communication revolutions, complex living is created by annihilating time and space. For instance, the centralised electricity of the second industrial revolution converged with the telephone, and later the radio and the television. Mass media managed a really complex and dispersed auto and oil culture, along with a mass consumer society.
Now, we are at a dangerous end-game. You can see it clearly with these five-year cycles of growth and collapse. And, there is no way to get out of this. We are misreading the economic crisis. In July 2008, oil hit $147 a barrel. As a result, the economy stopped, with prices going through the roof. This was the economic earthquake of the second industrial revolution. The collapse of the financial market, 60 days later, was an aftershock. And, the reason this collapse happened is because we hit two milestones — peak oil per capita and peak oil production.
But the seven per cent growth rate is back, at least in India.
It doesn’t make a difference. You need this growth rate to restart the engine, but when aggregate demand overtakes supply, you collapse again within four-five years and have a down period for two years. These cycles are occurring because we cannot bring the economy back to where it was before July 2008. We’re on life support.
So, we have to quickly wean on the third industrial revolution, as it will give us a completely new economic model — it will get us off carbon and, married with a new communication revolution, jump-start the economy.
So, what do we do?
In May 2007, the European Union (EU) Parliament had passed a declaration endorsing the ‘five pillars’ of the third industrial revolution, and within two years, all the six major political parties in Europe — from right to left — had signed this.
The first pillar is commitment to transforming 20 per cent of energy consumption into renewable energy by 2020. Germany, which is leading the revolution, has already announced 20 per cent of green electricity. On an average, Europe would have 11-12 per cent of green electricity at this point. In France, there is a big struggle around ending nuclear electricity.
The second pillar is how to collect energies. Our first thought was to go to Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain, which have huge amounts of concentrated wind and sun and even geo-thermal energies. But we realised you cannot run a continental economy on concentrated and renewable energy. How can we collect energies that are found everywhere? And, then it hit us: The buildings! Buildings are the primary users of energy in the world, the number one cause of climate change. There are 191 million buildings in the EU.
The second pillar jump-starts the economy by mass producing collection technologies. This creates millions of jobs and democratises energy. That means putting solar panels on the roofs, terracotta on the walls, vertical wind converters, geo-thermal heat pumps under the ground, garbage bio-converters in your kitchen, methane from your animals, ocean tides on the coastal areas — and there are huge opportunities in countries such as India that have large coastal belts.
The third pillar is storage, the weakest today. The wind isn’t always blowing when you need electricity. When you have cloud cover on the sun, what do you do? Coal and gas, on the other hand, are fixed. So, we need to have reliability. For instance, in India, a lot of people don’t want solar stoves because they cannot cook at night. At the EU, we’re committed to any kind of storage: batteries, fly-wheels, capacitors, water-pumping. We like them all. But we’re putting most of our emphasis on hydrogen as a storage network, as a long-term proposition. Hydrogen is the basic element in the universe, it is the lightest element. It is what we’re made of and it carries other energy.
So, here is the way hydrogen works: Let us say you have a small business at home and you’re collecting solar energy on your roof. If you had some surplus electricity you’re not using, you take that and put it in water, like a school chemistry experiment. Soon, hydrogen comes percolating out on the side. You put it in a tank. When the sun is not shining on your roof, you just convert the hydrogen back into electricity. It’s a tiny, thermal-dynamic loss, much smaller than the loss in bringing coal, oil and gas to you in your cities.
The EU has committed 8 billion euros to a public-private deployment, a partnership to get the hydrogen infrastructure into place.
The fourth pillar is the most interesting one. This is where the communication revolution synergises with the concentrated, renewable energies. Now, we are on the cusp of a new energy-communication mix. This doesn’t always happen, and Rome is a great example of this (it collapsed because its agricultural base in the sixth century was denuded). And, I’ve just done an 8 billion euro master plan for Rome with the help of 120 companies to enter the third industrial revolution.
The internet is a big part of the new communication revolution because it is organised to be distributive and collaborative and it scales lateral power, not vertical and top-down power. In Europe, we are already beginning to transform the power and transmission lines into a continental energy internet. So, when millions of buildings store a little bit of the green electricity into hydrogen, which if they don’t need can be converted back into electricity.
The fifth pillar allows you to use that electricity, by plugging in and charging your batteries.
Why isn’t the US willing to abide by climate change protocols such as Kyoto?
It is because the energy lobby is really powerful. The energy companies in Europe have to play more democratically, while in the US, they don’t have to. It’s not a small deal.
Where does India fit in?
India had Mahatma Gandhi who talked about an economy based on social capital. It is also a democracy. It is also the Saudi Arabia of green energy with your mass of solar, hydel and wind energy. The truth is there is no Plan B, this is the only world we have and we have to start saving it now.