October 3rd, 2011


Author, The Third Industrial Revolution


The world is doomed to repeat four-year cycles of booms followed by crashes if we don’t get off oil, Jeremy Rifkin warned a Climate One audience in San Francisco on October 3. The solution, what he calls the Third Industrial Revolution, is the “Energy Internet,” a nervous system linking millions of small renewable energy producers.

For Rifkin, author of the new The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy and Changing the World, a seminal event occurred in July 2008, when the price of oil hit $147 a barrel. “Prices for everything on the supply chain went through the roof, from food to petrochemicals. Purchasing power plummeted all over the world that month. An entire economic engine of the Industrial Revolution shut down,” he said.

“That was the great economic earthquake,” he went on. “The collapse of the financial markets 60 days later was the aftershock. Our world leaders are still dealing with the aftershock, and have not gone to the nub of the crisis."

The reason this is happening now, Rifkin said, is that the “world is made out of and moved by fossil fuels.” We have reached peak oil per capita and global peak oil production, he said, citing the International Energy Agency’s finding that peak oil production probably occurred in 2006, at 70 million barrels per day.

"Every time we try to re-grow the economy at the same growth rate we were growing before July 2008, the price of oil goes up, all of the other prices goes up, purchasing power goes down, and it collapses.” This is a wall we can’t go beyond under the current energy regime, he said. “We’re in this wild gyration of four-year cycles, where we’re going to try to re-grow, collapse, re-grow, collapse.”

The solution is a plan based on five pillars, which is being implemented in the European Union: 1) Renewable energy targets: such as the EU’s 20% by 2020 mandate 2) Green buildings: over the next 40 years, Europe plans to convert its 191 million buildings into energy-efficient, micro power plants 3) Energy storage: batteries, flywheels, and hydrogen used to smooth the intermittency of renewables 4) “Energy Internet”: create a central nervous system so that buildings can talk to the grid and sell or store power depending on prices 5) Plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

“The five pillars alone are simply components,” he said. “It’s when you put the five pillars together you create the synergies. It’s that infrastructure, the meta-technology that allows us to have a completely new economic paradigm – where we go from vertical to lateral scaling and from giant companies running the world to lots of small- and medium-sized enterprises, and very, very big networks, working alongside global companies.”

“This is power to the people,” he said. “This is the democratization of energy.”

He cautioned, however, that the five pillars have to be pursued in concert. President Obama sincerely wanted a green economy, Rifkin said. He spent billions of dollars on advanced batteries, renewable energy, and the smart grid. “But the projects were isolated, siloed, they stood alone, they didn’t connect up, and he lost the money.”

“He never could tell the story,” Rifkin said.”The story is the five pillars together, the coming together of energy and communication to create a new nervous system for a new world.”  


– Justin Gerdes
October 3, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California