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