Key words :
symbolic convergence theory,
Is Hydrogen Research Driven by Fantasy?
2 Feb, 2010 12:09 pm
A new study finds that research efforts at creating a hydrogen economy may be driven more by fantasy than sound science.
However, rather than being based on science, some evidence indicates that hydrogen research is being supported because of the way the hydrogen economy fulfills psychological and cultural needs related to a future world where energy is abundant, cheap, and pollution free, This “fantasy” manifests itself with the idea that society can continue to operate without limits imposed by population growth and the destruction of the environment.
To make this claim, myself and colleague Dr. Brent Brossmann drew research interviews of energy experts, as well as concepts in communication studies and rhetoric, to assess the ways that visions of the hydrogen economy are created and sustained. We began by documenting visions of the hydrogen economy as articulated by its proponents in the academic and popular literature. We searched hundreds of articles and narrowed our results to a sample of 52 academic, newspaper, and magazine articles along with a few reports and political transcripts.
Academic articles tended to come from the energy policy literature, notably journals such as International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Journal of Power Sources, Energy Policy, Energy, and Electricity Journal. These articles were written predominately by authors affiliated with universities, energy companies, consulting firms, and government sponsored research laboratories. Our sample of the popular literature was limited to the United States, with articles coming from political and media transcripts, magazines such as Business Week and the New Scientist, and newspapers such as the Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The final part of our methodology relied on symbolic convergence theory, a general theory of communication introduced by Ernest G. Bormann in 1972 and further developed by and with his colleagues John F. Cragan and Donald D. Shields. Symbolic convergence theory looks at the collective sharing of fantasies and how group consciousness affects human action. The theory does this by demonstrating the communicative force of fantasy, a force that continuously affects the consciousness of individuals, groups, and large publics. Like “gravity,” symbolic convergence theory posits that fantasy is a critical element of human interaction, a ubiquitous force needed in order for humans to explain and interpret their experiences.
When applied to discussions about the hydrogen economy, we found that symbolic convergence theory reveals a rich number of fantasy themes and visions. We identified five distinct fantasy themes and types associated with the hydrogen economy, each with their own different dramatis personae, along with recurring symbolic cues and a collective rhetorical vision.
More specifically, we found (1) a theme of inevitability that depicts hydrogen as the inescapable and unavoidable result of socio-technical development; (2) a theme of energy independence where advocates see hydrogen technologies as offering countries a robust, domestically insulated energy infrastructure immune from the vagaries of the global energy marketplace; (3) a theme of patriotism that paints hydrogen as a way to achieve national leadership, competitiveness, strength, and vitality; (4) a theme of unlimited progress that views hydrogen as a mechanism to achieve endless economic growth fueled by pollution-free and limitless supplies of energy; (5) and a theme of democratization that sees hydrogen as ushering in a wave of decentralized energy production and use;
We also found three recurring narratives or statements that can be regarded as symbolic cues, used by supporters to trigger fantasy themes about hydrogen. Hydrogen is continually cited as most abundant element in the known universe; it is often hailed as odorless and colorless; and it is frequently described as pure, being the simplest element.
Each of the five fantasy themes concerning the hydrogen economy—independence, patriotism, progress, democratization, and inevitability—have many different elements and, at times, contradict. As one example, the theme of democratic revolution sees hydrogen as fundamentally altering the energy system and human relations with it, while the theme of progress sees it doing the opposite and enabling society to continue on its consumptive course. Furthermore, many of the sources we identified promoted a variety of different themes all at once.
While each of the five fantasy themes was prevalent in both academic and popular discussions of the hydrogen economy, the specific nature of the themes did change based on the national affiliation of the authors. Consider the theme of independence. Because Nepal is rich in hydroelectric resources, the hydrogen economy is seen as a way to create Nepalese energy independence through large-scale electrolysis using hydroelectric reservoirs built along perennial rivers. Because Algeria has a large surplus of fossil fuels and an abundance of sunshine, their hydrogen economy would create independence by initially tapping oil and gas reserves before transitioning to the use of non-tracking solar photovoltaic arrays. In South Africa, which has plentiful coal reserves and a robust nuclear power sector, energy independence would be achieved through hydrogen production from coal liquids and modular pebble bed nuclear reactors, although this would conflict with other dimensions of the fantasy relating to environmental progress and democratization. Indeed, these subtle alterations on the theme of independence imply that the overall vision of a hydrogen economy varies based on local context where different motivations and expectations exist.
Despite these differences, however, the overall rhetorical vision of the hydrogen economy displayed some remarkable commonalities. Hydrogen is perceived as abundant and cheap by each of the themes, and also as a mechanism to replace all conventional forms of energy production. The vision is also incredibly vague, possessing immense strategic flexibility concerning particular hydrogen technologies and configurations. Moreover, the rhetorical vision of the hydrogen economy weaves together all three master analogues: it is righteous, emphasizing at times the patriotic or moral duty to invest in hydrogen; it is social, emphasizing how human relationships between each other and the natural environment can be reshaped by a hydrogen economy; and it is pragmatic, underscoring the rational efficiency and cost-effectiveness of a hydrogen transition.
In essence, the present of these fantasy themes implies that the challenges faced by a hydrogen transition are discounted in the face of the much more powerful and compelling fantasies associated with the hydrogen economy. Advocates dismiss attacks on the hydrogen economy as “unimaginative” and “premature” and instead subscribe to a grander vision permeated by fantasy themes surrounding conceptions of an escapable hydrogen future, robustly independent energy sectors, revitalized national strength, accelerated technological and material progress, and decentralized energy supply. The prevalence of these fantasy themes concerning the hydrogen economy suggests that the energy policy decisions made by analysts and politicians and not always based on rationality alone.
Such themes are not located in any one individual or group, nor are they confined to a particular type of hydrogen technology, and instead manifest themselves as a mass fantasy shared by stakeholders indifferent across countries and cultures. This implies that the provocative force of the hydrogen economy fantasy can, in the right circumstances, transcend any specific location or institution. While certainly not uniform, each of the underlying fantasy themes surrounding hydrogen serve cultural, psychological, and economic needs, whether they are immunity from dependence on foreign sources of fuel and macroeconomic dislocation (independence), pride and national identity (patriotism), continued economic expansion (progress), a need for change (democratization), or uncertainty concerning the future (inevitability).
The desire to experience these sorts of fantasies will likely continue even if the hydrogen economy does not come to fruition.
Benjamin K. Sovacool and Brent Brossmann, “Symbolic Convergence and the Hydrogen Economy,” Energy Policy 38(4) (April, 2010), pp. 1999-2012, available at http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0301421509009318
Key words :
symbolic convergence theory,
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Let me ask the people of Singapore and the world one thing.
If you could convert the seawater surrounding your island to useable, renewable, clean, and cheap energy would you be in favor of the science ?
Careful for your answer as the Saudia's and other hydrocarbon
corporate monopolist are listening.
Moreover, Toyota plans on bringing "affordable" hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to market in 2015 (see below).
"7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles"
Here are 7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (which the company started developing in-house back in 1992 when I was a senior in high school):
1. 431-mile real-world driving range with Toyota FCHV-adv (mid-size SUV) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (See the following YouTube video)
2. 68.3 real-world miles per kilogram fuel economy with Toyota FCHV-adv (See the following YouTube video)
3. Ability to operate in temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 37 degrees Celsius)
4. Irv Miller, TMS group vice president, environmental and public affairs, made the following comment on August 6th:
?In 2015, our plan is to bring to market a reliable and durable fuel cell vehicle with exceptional fuel economy and zero emissions, at an affordable price.?
5. Masatami Takimoto, a Toyota executive vice president and board member, made the following comment about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in January 2009 at the North American International Auto Show:
?By 2015, we will have a full-fledged commercialization effort.?
6. The Toyota FCHV-adv (Highlander) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has the same trunk and passenger space as the gasoline-powered version.
Click on the following link to see a picture of the trunk in the Toyota FCHV-adv hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
7. Here is a comment made by Justin Ward, advanced powertrain program manager-Toyota Technical Center, in a Ward?s Automotive article (subscription required) that was published on July 16th:
?We have some confidence the vehicle released around 2015 is going to have costs that are going to be shocking for most of the people in the industry. They are going to be very surprised we were able to achieve such an impressive cost reduction.?
Chief Executive Officer
Hydrogen Discoveries, Inc.
"Hydrogen Car Revolution" blog
"Copy of Letter of Understanding from eight car companies calling for initial hydrogen fueling stations to be built by 2015"
Chief Executive Officer
Hydrogen Discoveries, Inc.
"Hydrogen Car Revolution" blog
About 14 years ago now, I noticed that promises and prototypes had been being made, and forgotten, for rather a long time already. Always just around the corner! And I see some other commenters are pointing out that hydrogen cars are -- in a whole new development -- just around the corner.
It occurred to me that there is a whole periodic table to consider. Boron turns out to be a nicer package.
I find this article and the presumed "research" behind it to be manipulative and self-serving. Ironically, what I am hearing are very subjective conclusions that are used just to belittle the very real truths of an hydrogen economy pointed out in the article. The authors should find something better to do with their time.
A hydrogen economy is just as sweet when called by any other name.
Thanks for your comments. There's no denying that I personally think other sources of energy - energy efficiency, renewables, even nuclear power - currently have advantages over hydrogen as an energy carrier. And when it comes to transportation, I think electric vehicles and PHEVs especially in a V2G configuration seem to have more advantages than hydrogen ones.
But that does not dispute that cutting edge advancements in hydrogen research are going on around the world, and that fuel cells and other hydrogen systems could some day meaningfully contribute to addressing global energy problems.
Jjpro, while your comment was the most acerbic, it?s closest to the point we were trying to make in the article: fantasies need not be bad things, and they often help us make sense of a complicated world. I would agree that there are probably fantasies surrounding every form of energy, we just mapped them out for the hydrogen economy because it was one of the easiest places to start. So saying that fantasy shapes hydrogen research is not meant to say that?s wrong or bad; only that we?re not collectively as ?rational? as economics and policy analysts would have us be.
Photosynthesis is almost the the very opposit of fuels cells (exrtacting hydrogen from water and casting off oxygen, fuel cells recombining hydrogen & oxygen to produce water and electricty).
It seems more Common Sense than Fantasy!
There are a few basics about hydrogen worth reviewing, based on your comment to Greg, G.R.L. Cowan, jjpro. Hydrogen, like electricity, is an energy carrier and therefore works WITH (not instead of) what you prefer: renewables and even nuclear energy. Hydrogen is a way to increase the effectiveness of energy sources like the ones you mention because it doesn't make sense to put a wind turbine on a vehicle or a nuclear plant in your house. With hydrogen you can more easily "carry" the energy from the power plant or turbine into a car, or house or cell phone. It makes those primary energy sources more valuable and more useable. It's not a choice of either/or. They all work together. (And yes, energy efficiency is crucial no matter what technologies one likes.)
What really drives hydrogen research? Well, I can tell you that Walmart, Wegmans, Verizon, Sprint, Michelin and others aren't buying hydrogen technologies today because they want to indulge a fantasy. They're doing it because hydrogen can save their company money and therefore they can keep prices low and value high for their customers. Basic stuff. Economics. Hydrogen forklifts, back-up power units for cell phone towers. Real equipment being bought and sold today.
And hydrogen research is driven by the need to make equipment that's better or cheaper (or both!) for whomever might want to use it! (Isn't that what drives virtually all research?)
They realy hate the fact that hydrogen tech has gone far enough to shatter that dream. Things they had hoped would fall wont now.
Hate is what drives them.
As for what drives us? One part SCIENCE!!! One part nyaa nyaa nyaa!!! And a healthy dose of oh god if this doesnt work ill have to move closer to THEM! And finaly add in a good dose of why the heck not? If it works it will be damn cool and fun and if it doesnt.. it will still make some dang cool gizmos.
We hear from Mr. Greg Blencoe on every fuel cell story or blog in the world with his "7 reasons" blather since his sole income is from the FCV industry. Those of us who are working (voluntarily!) for cleaning up our transportation sector of the pollution it causes have concluded that the fastest and cheapest method is renewable energy into batteries. The science is clear, the economics are clear, we have only to convince the legislators and regulators who are constantly bombarded by the misinformation from the likes of the Greg Blencoes and Terry Tamminens of the world who are paid shills for the dirty energy companies pulling their strings.
The market is speaking quite loudly on this issue now. Every OEM on the planet is racing to get their respective plug-in vehicles to market. We'll see thousands of Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts for sale later this year. Next year, there will be tens of thousands including cars from Ford, Volvo, Mercedes, BMW, Mitsubishi and others.
Blencoe's claim of Toyota FCVs in 2015 rings hollow given their previous claims of selling FCVs never materialized.
"As far as I know, no one who is technically literate is an enthusiastic
supporter of fuel-cell-powered vehicles" (Donald R. Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry, MIT)
"I said this years ago, and I see no reason to change my mind: The
family-owned, garaged vehicle is the last vehicle that's going to get a
fuel cell. . . I doubt that I will ever see a hydrogen car for personal
consumption in a showroom." (Geoffrey Ballard, Ballard Power Systems Inc., major fuel cell manfufacturer)
This on the other hand came from the car companies and not carb. And you will note its NOT a 2015 deadline its AROUND 2015 and its no deadline.
Around 2015 they SHOULD have the things being built. Thats all they have said. Oh and they havnt said this to carb they have said this to US.