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and the internet

April 2003

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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Mainstream media, occasionally, publish some information and comments on the hydrogen issue. Or, more broadly, on the opportunities offered by “renewable“ energy sources. But these subjects aren’t treated as seriously as they should. There is a prevailing, and quite absurd, notion that we are hopelessly condemned to the use of fossil fuels – especially oil.

The problem isn’t just that fossil reserves aren’t inexhaustible – and will come to an and in a few decades. The worry isn’t only the very serious, and increasing, damage to the environment caused by burning ever-increasing quantities of oil and coal.

There are also very unpleasant and dangerous economic and political diseases caused by the concentration of resources. The large fossil beds (coal, oil, gas) are in a few places around the world. This causes dramatic unbalances. Transport is cumbersome and accident-prone. The mammoth power plants are inefficient and vulnerable – and so are the large refineries. Centralized systems are a disease, that can have dangerous, sometimes catastrophic, consequences.

We can get out of this mess with solutions that are no longer scientific theory, or laboratory experiments, but have an established record of practical feasibility. One of their many advantages is that they are infinitely “scaleable.“ Energy can be produced in large plants or small, decentralized wherever it’s convenient. There is an interesting analogy, in this sense, between the structure of the internet and the production of energy with hydrogen (or other “renewable“ resources.)

It’s no coincidence that Wired published an article in its April 2003 issue, by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, How Hydrogen Power Can Save America, in which this subject is addressed quite aggressively (though it’s a bit myopic to treat it only as an American problem and to ignore the analogy with networking).

It’s no coincidence that the first country to head for a “hydrogen economy“ is Iceland – a leading country in online activity (see the data section.)

If a totally oil-free economy can be realized in an island with 300 thousand inhabitants, that confirms that it can be done anywhere. In the world largest cities or in the smallest villages. For a whole town or for a single neighborhood or building. With enormous advantages for the most “advanced“ (and energy-consuming) economies – as well as for the “emerging“ economies that lack local, manageable sources of energy. No more pipelines, no more tankers, no more long-range electric cables, no more conditioning by those who own the fossil reserves o the tools to exploit them. Infinitely renewable energy equally available to all, from the skyscrapers in New York or Shanghai to the remotest villages of Africa or Asia.

This is no longer a theory or a hypothesis. It’s a practically proven reality. And so is the decentralized, infinitely scaleable structure of the net.

The concept of what we know as the internet existed in the nineteenth century – but it started to develop practically only thirty years ago. The idea of energy from hydrogen developed on a similar time scale. In by Jules Verne’s book Mysterious Island (1874) a sailor asks an engineer what could be used to produce heat and energy when we run out of coal. “Water“, he replies, And explains that energy can be produced when oxygen and hydrogen are separated.

What Jules Verne didn’t expect was the long, gloomy period in which we have been burning oil. But now the time has come to go for what he had seen, 130 year ago, as the most obvious and effective solution.

In the case of the internet, we have a simple and effective technical solution available to all, but we still have a long way to go because in a large part of the world access is scarcely available (if nor prohibited) and we haven’t yet a full understanding of how to move away from the homogenized, centralized, rigid information structure of the industrial era. But the resources are there, we just have to learn how to use them better.

In the case of energy, there were ways of producing hydrogen in 1920. Since then there has been considerable evolution of technologies. Probably there are more to come, but we have enough practical knowhow to move ahead, here and now. If it can be done in Iceland, why not everywhere else? It’s hard to think of any country or place in the world where enough non-fossil, non-polluting, renewable energies can’t be found to produce all the hydrogen we want (as well as satisfying some of the energy needs without even going through the hydrogen process.)

It may be sunshine is some places, wind in others. Rivers or tides, volcanic heat or thermal air flow, urban waste or agricultural produce, etcetera. We don’t need gas or oil to make usable hydrogen. It is possible everywhere to change to a fully sustainable, and non polluting, energy system.

We have the technical solutions to free ourselves from oil or coal slavery. What we need is the cultural attitude, the dedication, the will to make it happen. The big power systems are probably unhappy about the demise of centralization. But the advantages for humanity (and for the environment) are so enormous that their nearsighted resistance must be overcome. Worldwide availability of inexhaustible, renewable, decentralized and “clean“ energy (as well as an infinite diversity of free. unhindered information and communication) isn’t a dream or a theory. It’s a practical opportunity that we can’t afford to miss.


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