Ciao Carbon, Hello Hydrogen!

by David Rutherford
The Evening Standard, 09 May 2010

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What was the first thing you noticed this morning? Was it the bird song or how green London seems now? It's staggering really how in just two years our city has been transformed. Can it really only be two years ago in 2008, that the last combustion engine powered vehicles made their way down Piccadilly? Having spent the night at the Hilton on Park Lane, I awoke this morning totally oblivious to the endless commuter traffic making its way around Hyde Park Corner. I actually thought that I'd gone temporarily deaf, as I looked out of my window and onto the traffic below there was not a sound coming from it, the roar had gone. Only the occasional sounding of a horn, from a few more stressed members of our community indicated the existence of traffic at all.

The reason for my stay at the Hilton was to participate with an invited audience in a live link up with New York. We were to put some questions to the man who silenced the traffic and who is being honoured later today.

The revolution for that is essentially what it was, began quietly, with just an idea posted onto the Internet seventeen years ago in August 1993, by a faculty member at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The ethos of the idea might be viewed by some to originate from the 1992 United Nations Rio Earth summit on Environment and Development. Others may in turn say it had its origins in the 1972 Stockholm conference on the Human Environment, which set out a programme of action for sustainable development into the 21st Century. However it is clear now in 2010 that it was undoubtedly the posting onto the Internet of the plans for a Hybrid-electric Vehicle by Amory Lovins, that really acted as the catalyst for the revolution. That is why he is being honoured today with the newly created United Nations' Citizen of the World ' award.

Before we look at the ramifications of that Internet posting, we need to go back to the Rio Earth summit to find out what it was trying to achieve.

Rio Earth Summit

The first principle of the Rio declaration in 1992, known as Agenda 21, was:

"Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature."

The summit received much publicity at the time as 'Green' issues were just entering mainstream public debate. All the talk was of the Greenhouse effect, global warming, pollution, CFC's- remember the bad press our fridge's were receiving - and the climatic effect they were having. The planet was experiencing increasingly severe weather, leading to the erosion of top soil, which in turn lead to increased desertification, rising sea levels and the inundation of coastal areas.

Something needed to be done, the Rio Earth summit was the initial response to those global problems, for it actually acknowledged those problems which was the critical first step.

Cosmetic Policies

Consensus was reached at the summit that the emission levels of the polluting gasses, which were causing the temperature rise, needed to be reduced in order to halt global warming. It was at the summit that mans best friend, the car, was marked down as one of the prime contributors to the global emission problem, or more specifically the gasses, which were produced as an unavoidable by-product of burning fossil fuels which powered the cars of the day were.

It was initially felt that by reducing driving numbers we could significantly cut emission figures. Various schemes were tried, car-pooling in the States to increased taxation on the motorist in Britain. Romania even introduced a policy whereby you could only drive on alternate days, the day dependent on whether your car had an odd or even number plate. Those who could afford to do so, by-passed this law and bought second cars, others simply made dummy plates. None of these plans worked, they were purely cosmetic gestures and came nowhere close to representing responsible environmental policy. The consequence of which was that the public didn't really appreciate how close we were to global catastrophe and viewed the measures as an annoyance rather that a wake up call.

Passing the Buck

Governments soon realised that measures aimed at attacking the individual driver were both unpopular and ineffective, so for the first time maximum permitted emission figures were set, clearly aimed at the manufactures, thereby forcing the problem onto them, passing the buck as it were. The result was therefore entirely predictable, rather than tackle the problem head on and look at ways of significantly reducing car emission levels; they looked for a quick fix. The result was the introduction of lead free petrol, the costs of which were passed onto the consumer via higher pump prices and the costs involved in installing catalytic converters so that old cars could use the new fuel.

Many governments talked green but that was it, just talk. America was a prime offender, pandering to the industries that supported its government, rather than cutting it's own emission figures, it bought the rights to poorer nations emission figures, which did nothing in terms of cutting down global emission levels, in fact it probably resulted in more pollution. No one was fooled.

With the benefit of hindsight, this stance had a quite inadvertently positive effect on society at large. It forced environmentally concerned and aware individuals to make a stand. The environment and the protection of it, passed into the public domain. Non Governmental Organisations (N.G.O's) such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were suddenly perceived in a much more positive light. Where its leaders had once been portrayed as belonging to the lunatic fringe, they suddenly became mainstream players, so much so that by the late 1990's the leader of Greenpeace was noted as being in the top 10 of the most influential people in the United Kingdom.

Turning Rhetoric into Reality

Amory Lovins, whose achievements we are all celebrating today, made a stand, although not an activist, he is truly a man of vision; he foresaw two important things. Firstly, that the car itself was not the problem, but rather the problem lay in how the car was being powered. Secondly that if we stopped demonizing the car and applied some ' out of the box ' thinking to borrow his words and explored the notion of what a car actually does or perhaps more importantly what it could do. We could gain a benefit and become genuinely greener in the process, by actually utilizing our cars. Where others ranted and raved, protested and lobbied in the attempt to have their voices heard, he quietly but stunningly provided a solution to the problem of pollution caused by car emissions. He had provided a 'Vehicle' that represented the turn from rhetoric to reality.

One of the questions asked of Amory Lovins in the interview broadcast live on the Internet by the Microsoft-Sky News Network last night was: "Why did you decide to tackle the problems of car emissions, when the car industry seemed so reluctant to do so itself?"

His reply was as follows: "Actually the problems arising from the car and its emissions, were merely a stepping stone we encountered en-route to reaching our ultimate goal. We wanted to show that a product such as the car, which had traditionally been based and powered on burning fossil fuels, could be run on a cleaner energy source. It was our ultimate goal and still is to move industry away from an economy based on polluting, unsustainable carbon-based fuels to one based on solar hydrogen.

"We felt that by utilising the basic notion of what a car is, but radically altering its components and capabilities we may be able to best demonstrate the concept of what we were talking about. In effect showcasing our ideas, ethos and what could be achieved, in the hope that others would recognise the possibilities and opportunities that lay ahead and assimilate them into their own industries.

"The car after all is one of the 20th Century's major success stories - it helped make America Great - but it is also one of the 20th Century's prime causes of pollution. We felt it was important to prove that we didn't need to discard a wanted and in many cases needed product, but clearly it had to evolve in order to survive. The problem was not so much the car itself, but the way in which it was powered. Car manufacturing and its ancillary businesses employed one-seventh of the U.S. workforce and in some European countries up to two-fifths of theirs."

In the late 1990's David Morris, co-founder for Local Self-Reliance, observed: "The production of automobiles is the world's number 1 industry. The number two industry supplies their fuel. Six of America's ten largest industrial corporations are either oil or auto companies. I recall a British estimate at that time concluded that half the world's earnings may be auto or truck related. The brutal reality was that as much as the environment was being choked by the output from cars and trucks, the world's economy breathed life from these industries."

One can see from those words that it was not a giant leap for a man of such vision to co-author one of the best selling books of all time - certainly the most downloaded. Which is exactly what he did in association with Paul Hawken and L. Hunter Lovins, when they wrote Natural Capitalism at the back end of the nineties. Natural Capitalism provided the template for a new Industrial Revolution, which was explained most succinctly in the book's forward as follows:

"Most businesses still operate according to a world view that hasn't changed since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Then, natural resources were abundant and labour was the limiting factor of production, But now, there's a surplus of people, while natural capital, natural resources and the ecological systems that provide vital life-support services, is in decline and relatively expensive. The next Industrial Revolution, like the first one, will be a response to changing patterns of scarcity. It will create upheaval, but more importantly, it will create opportunities. Business must adjust to these new realities. Innovative companies are already doing just that. They're profiting and gaining decisive competitive advantage, and their leaders and employees are feeling better about what they do, too. They're in the vanguard of a new business model: natural capitalism."

When Bill Clinton recommended in January 2000 that all American businessmen read the book, it was a swipe at the oil-producing lobby of the U.S.A. who had emasculated his response at Rio back in 1992.

When Amory Lovins posted his designs for the Hypercar onto the Internet in August 1993, it was clear that he had not merely re-designed the car for the new millenium, he'd re-defined what a car could be. At first glance the plans merely looked like the plans for a futuristic looking vehicle, but this disguised the fact that a quantum leap had taken place. It was almost too subtle for a society obsessed with outer appearance and packaging to get excited about.

Old Dog - New Tricks

The quantum leap was an application not an invention. At the heart of the Hypercar is its hydrogen fuel cell. Hydrogen fuel cells were initially developed in the 1960's for the space programme; it would be another 30 years before technology could reduce their bulk sufficiently in order to make them viable as a car power source. Fuel cells flamelessly combine stored hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce an electrical current. The fuel cell therefore operates in effect as a reverse of Michael Faraday's experiment of electrolysis, of course those of you who actually paid attention in your physics lessons at school will know that Faraday by introducing an electrical current to acidified water was able to produce Hydrogen and Oxygen. The fuel cell combines these two elements to produce electricity and pure water. The electricity produced is used to power the Hypercar"!; it is this onboard production of electricity that makes it radically different and cleaner than a battery powered car.

Literally over night the world had been given a template for a product that would act as the stepping stone from an unsustainable carbon-fossil burning and polluting society to one that could utilise hydrogen. If that wasn't enough the bigger prize was that the Hypercar in one stroke provided the blueprint to mark the end of the philosophical war between the green movement and the worlds most polluting industry. The challenge was to see if both parents would accept the child.

Adoption or Resistance

One would have assumed that the idea Amory Lovins gave birth to would have been snatched up the moment it appeared on the web. In reality it sat there for some considerable time like an unwanted orphan. Initially the car industry didn't want to know because it was just developing battery powered cars, which required minimal change to the production lines already in existence. Minimal change equated to continued profits!

Another r eason for the slow response was that Amory Lovins had deliberately posted his designs for the Hypercar onto the Internet free of any patents, in the hope that one of the major manufacturers would take up the challenge to produce the car. Not an unreasonable assumption to make, after all manufacturers pump millions if not billions into concept car designs every year, yet initially not one of them took the bait - why - because they were tied into the oil industry.

A coalition of some of the world's largest corporations including Chrysler and Shell even launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign in the 1990's meant to stop the Clinton Administration from negotiating a treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.

The coalition including leading oil, coal and automobile producers called itself the "Global Climate Information Project". It was believed to have spent $13 million, (according to the Financial Times) on TV, radio, and print ads to confuse the public about climate change. Thereby diverting attention from their industries' contribution to the problem in the same way that tobacco companies tried to deny evidence that smoking caused health problems.

The Greens had become so entrenched with fighting against the pollution by cars and misinformation campaigns like the one mentioned above, that they got stuck in the trap of believing all cars were evil, and forgot that it was the pollution that they wanted to stop. Both sides were so familiar with being in opposition with each other that it was inconceivable to either side that they could actually fulfil their goals by sitting at the same table, let alone on the same side of that table.

Governments had been slow on the uptake of the idea as well, for purely financial reasons. Massive amounts of taxes were being accrued from both the oil industries directly and also indirectly from drivers filling up at the pumps. Many governments either owned or were heavily funded by the oil companies as the Elf scandal involving the French and German governments of the late 1990's proved. The French government used Elf, which was state owned at the time to help underwrite Chancellor Kohl's election campaign in order to further foster its aims of European integration, which it believed stood more chance of success if Kohl was at the helm in Germany. I mention this only to highlight exactly how much influence and power the oil companies had at the time and to help explain why it took so long for the Hypercar to actually reach the market .

A Man ahead of the times

Amory Lovins was and probably still is ahead of the times. None-the-less back then few were prepared to listen and even less truly grasped what he had achieved. If one could level criticism at him, it would be this; he simply did not promote his plans loudly enough. Perhaps though he recognised that we would need to get closer to the edge of the abyss before we were ready to take the cureś and so it proved.

Turning Points

Last night I was able to ask Amory Lovins what he felt was the key moment in history that had enabled him to get the car off the web and into production.

"I don't believe there was a key moment as such, rather a series of moments, each of which filtered bit by bit into the public's imagination and eventually forced the manufacturers to act. The key moments in my belief are these:

"When California introduced a policy in the mid1990's that demanded cars produce zero-emission from 2004, I believe the message began to sink home that something was up. It was also the perfect opportunity to promote the Hypercar because everyone at the time was thinking that battery powered cars were going to be the solution. In reality although California demanded zero-emission from the tailpipe of a car, the electricity required to charge and power the battery was being made elsewhere, namely at coal, oil and nuclear powerplants. These plants would have needed to be working overtime and moreover new ones would have needed to be built in order to meet the increased demand for electricity. As a consequence the overall pollution levels wouldn't necessarily fall but merely be relocated from the car back to those powerplants. Clearly a fuel cell that produces and has the capacity to store electricity within the vehicle itself, is both cleaner and more efficient.

"The European directive of January 2000, which placed the responsibility from 2006 onto manufactures to recycle every car they had ever produced since the 19th Century that had not already been scrapped. This was perhaps the strongest indicator that the Western world realised that the natural world was near crisis point.

"The floods caused by global warming, which occurred seemingly around the World throughout 1999 and 2000 finally registered in the public consciousness as being a global community problem.

"In many ways the small straw which broke the camel's back came in late 2000 and early 2001 in a Health Authority directive that no new junior schools would be built in Britain, unless they could provide a shaded playground area for the children. It was the admission by the senior health development officer for London, that Skin Cancer, caused by ozone depletion was their number one health action priority. Children were not allowed to go outside on sunny days unless there was a shaded area and they were wearing sun block. If there was no shaded area available then they had to remain indoors. Children all over the country were even provided with free desert sun hats.

"Once people became aware that their children were in real danger from skin cancer, combined with the realisation that they could not enjoy a full childhood by playing outdoors, all financial arguments went out the window.

"Of course those less socially conscious, could also see that once our economy made the switch from Carbon to Hydrogen that this new power source would be as profitable as it was clean. There is less waste because any excess electricity produced can be stored and fed back into the grid or even sold back! As soon as people started seeing the potential for the Hypercar to be not only a mode of transport but also a mobile power station - albeit a small one - the car industry became very excited.

The enabling factor in all this though was probably OPEC's acceptance that they faced being put out of business and their surprisingly rapid move into the hydrogen business. The uncompromising legislation against the burning of fossil fuels by all governments driven by the power of the NGO'S made the switch absolutely inevitable. This switch of course was funded by the war chest they amassed when oil reached $50 a barrel. Those Sheiks are certainly shrewd; I visited the Middle East recently with a certain degree of apprehension and was surprised at the warmth of the reception I received.

"'It doesn't matter what we are selling, just as long as we are doing the selling. It makes no difference whether it was oil then or hydrogen and electricity now' was a typical response."

So due to the ultimate power of the people's will, the parents did adopt the child. The result is a global people's car fuelled by the people's fuel. When Amory Lovins receives his ' Citizen of the World' award tonight, he can be proud that the world today is a cleaner, quieter, safer place than it was 10 years ago. For the first time in two hundred years we have experienced a drop in CO2 levels.

The question posed in the year 2000 by every agency across the world was how to chose between respect for the environment or regeneration of communities. The answer provided by the technology of 2010 is that we can do both, if business will change its culture to embrace the new opportunities towards equity.

We have in truth though with the help of Amory Lovins merely taken the first step on the path to achieving the transition from Fossil fuel to Solar Hydrogen energy. It will be up to you the people to decide how far we ultimately go down this path. The revolution won't be over until every household is powered by a fuel cell and then we can finally say goodbye to our coal and nuclear power plants and once again enjoy watching our children play outside, without worry.


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