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F is for: Future Friendly Fuel Cells

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
November 7, 2002


"The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them." — Mark Twain

For the longest time I struggled with a romanticism for all things Luddite. First to blame technology for all of society's ills, and society's ills for all things technological, I was missing a much larger truth. Upon deeper reflection, I have come to uneasy conclusion that as a culture we are so dependent on technology we will need to use technology to save ourselves from technology misused.

When our ancestors used whale flesh to light the darkness, they lived in a world of such abundance; restraint was never a consideration because man had a destiny to meet. Luckily for the whales, whale oil was replaced with electricity before whales were hunted to extinction. As it turned out electricity was much easier to provide, and would revolutionize the world. But the market for oil lubricants did not die with the whaling industry, so when crude oil was discovered in the Pennsylvania countryside, destructive exploitation found new forms of expression.

I often wonder if humans had known the true cost of burning fossil fuels would we have traveled down the path of progressive pollution. For centuries humans have known the burning of coal is a threat to human health. Even the act of ripping coal from the ground came with it's own death sentence, the aptly named black lung disease. Yet, some of us still continue to use coal to light and heat our homes. Not because it is the only way to do so, but because that is the only affordable option provided. Or so we think.

How we fuel the majority of our transportation choices is equally out dated, as well as equally polluting, if not more so, considering the number of fossil fuel burning automobiles in the world today. Unlike the people who burned whale oil to extend their productive hours, modern Americans know exactly the impact fossil fuels have on air and water quality, not to mention the overall sustainability of favorable planetary systems.

Committed to the pollution of the past and thereby unwilling to embrace the technologies of the future, the Bush Administration's National Energy Plan is currently calling for expanded coal mining and oil and natural gas drilling in this country, while the George W's foreign policy team is calling for expanded warfare in the Middle East to further secure American interests in that oil producing region. Suffice it to say fossil fuels are produced through one form of violence or another. And still we pollute.

Currently in California we are engaged in a debate over two fuel additives. MTBE, known to be toxic to the human condition, and ethanol, the producers of which are requesting a liability shield for it's use, only further maintain the destructive monopoly of 20th century technology over our transportation choices. Here in San Diego County, rail transportation is still dependent on 19th century technology, as if nothing else was available.

To be an environmentalist one must also be a futurist. I have yet to meet an environmentalist who is not motivated by what they see as a diminishing quality of life and an overriding commitment to preserve something for future generations. To continue drilling for oil directly threatens the options for the children being born today. Global warming is real, and the burning of fossil fuels is the smoking gun that has accelerated the engines of our undoing.

There is hope however. The technology of which I speak was invented in 1839, and is known to every high school student as the fuel cell. Hydrogen fuel cells although costly to produce in small quantities, are cost effective when mass-produced for the consumer market. Fuels cells are not only considerably less polluting, and that is only during the production phase, they can also be used to power anything man can dream up.

Because fuel cells are remarkably light they would also revolutionize the automobile industry, sending the internal combustion engine to the junk heap of history where it belongs. Lighter engines mean lighter cars, which means less energy is need to propel vehicles, and less energy used results in more money saved. Everybody wins.

So why you ask why we haven't embraced a technology, that is less costly, less polluting, more efficient, and with wider uses. Will simply put the oil industry does not want to give up it's place at the top of the corporate food chain, regardless of how suicidal maintaining that position is.

The future is here folks; we just need to embrace it while kicking the oil cartels to the curb once and for all. For more information go online to the Rocky Mountain Institute at http://www.rmi.org.

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