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A letter published in the reader's section of Le Monde about hydrogen

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On september 23, 2002, M. Jeremy Rifkin, head of the Foundation on Economic Trends, published in the paper "Le Monde" (dated sept. 24) an article where he said, in short :

that Europe was engaged on the path of "pulling out of the fossil fuel era", that is that there was a voluntary and progressive renunciation to these energies (coal, oil, gas) in the Old Continent,

that hydrogen, whose combustion produces only water vapour, was the energy of the future.

Following this article, I sent a letter to this newspaper, that got partially published in the reader's section. Suppressing part of my letter did not induce a major twist of my conclusions, but did eliminate some nuances or incidental purposes, so on my website - where room is not a problem - I considered that the reader might as well read the whole text that I sent !


*****version sent to "Le Monde"*****

Mr. Rifkin is a man whose optimism is most welcome, since discussing our energy and climate future without being sometimes doubtful is an exercise that only the president of the IEA is able to do. His impetus and his "energy" are therefore a pleasure to be seen.

Alas, neither his optimism, nor mine, that can also be important sometimes, have the power to change the world as it is. If hydrogen is very abundant in the universe, our planet is an exception : hydrogen does exist in the native form on Earth, and collecting that of the sun would raise a couple of practical problems.

To use hydrogen on earth, we need to produce this "clean" gas out of something else (this "something else" might very well not be clean at all), which means that hydrogen is just an energy vector, as electricity (that might, depending on opinions and fashions of the moment, be considered as "clean" or not, definitions being able to very from one person to another). "Well to wheel" analysis (you can investigate either with the IFP or .... the association française de l'hydrogène) conclude that if this hydrogen is produced by cracking natural gas, which is presently the case, overall resulting CO2 emissions make the process worse than burning directely petrol in a car.

If this hydrogen is produced through electrolysis, the emissions are then those of electricity generation, that could therefore be generated only with water, wind, solar, or nuclear plants in order not to emit greenhouse gases. Let's discuss the case of wind power : "hydrogenating" all French cars would require the buildup of one million windmills to get 600 TWh, and that does not take into account the energy - certainly not negligible - required to store it (a simple compression to 300 bars consumes already 20% of the inital hydrogen ; liquefaction requires 50%) and transport it.

Similar calculations show that solar energy is also not able to meet the required hydrogen production with the present level of mobility, so there remain hydroelectricity, that would require a multiplication by 10 to 15 of the dams in France, or nuclear, that would require a doubling of the number of reactors in France.

More generally, a couple calculations on the orders of magnitude show that it is rigorously impossible to keep our present lifestyle with just renewables, be they converted into hydrogen for various reasons.

At last, when Mr. Rifkin indicates that Europe is engaged in the fight of "pulling out of the fossil fuel era", BP and Shell leading the way, I think that he is definitely very optimistic ! The only "pulling out" of something that has been anounced in Europe is relative to nuclear energy in Germany and in Belgium, what tends to make the fight against climate change rather more arduous, and the european commissioner in charge of transportation has "foreseen" that our dependancy on imports for fossil fuels will jump from 50% today to 70% in 20 years. As far as "pulling out" is concerned, I've seen better !

M. Rifkin may have wanted to do well, but because he ignores the magnitudes of the processes, he ends up doing something not desirable : maintaining false hopes.

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