The Four Pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution

By Michael Edmonds 09/01/2011

The latter chapters of Jeremy Rifkin’s new book ‘The Empathic Civilization’ (which I have summarised elsewhere) discusses how the many technological advances made possible by the Second Industrial Revolution and its oil based economy have made it possible for a nascent global consciousness to develop based on an extended empathy, not only for other members of our species but also for our biosphere. At the same time, Rifkin contends that our consumption of vast quantities of fossil fuel reserves has created an unsustainable entropic abyss evidenced by global warming and a future scarcity of oil. Now is the time for a Third Industrial Revolution.

Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution rests on four pillars — 1) the use of renewable energy sources, 2) the use of ‘buildings as power plants’, 3) the development of effective energy storage methods and 4) reconfiguration of the power grid into a distributed network similar to the internet, whereby energy can be both produced and used at multiple nodes, including homes and businesses, across the grid.

Let us consider each pillar separately:

1)       Renewable energy sources

While the primary energy sources of the Second Industrial Revolution are concentrated in specific areas of the globe, renewable energy sources are wide spread. There are very few locations on Earth that do not have potential access to one or more options for renewable energy generation using solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, wave or biomass derived energy. In effect, the use of renewable energy resources leads to a democratization of energy.

2)      ‘Buildings as power plants’

Buildings are a major consumer of global energy (30 to 40%), so innovations that would allow building to generate and efficiently use their own energy will play a key role in the Third Industrial Revolution.  Indeed, such buildings already exist. General Motors largest European production facility in Aragon, Spain, recently installed a 10 megawatt solar plant on its factory roof. This plant is able to produce enough electricity to power the factory, which has the equivalent energy needs of 4600 homes.

3)      Development of energy storage methods

One of the challenges of most forms of renewable energy is that their output is inconsistent — wind and weather is variable, day turns to night etc. Consequently, effective methods are required to store the vast amounts of energy available from renewable sources. While there are a number of possibilities for doing so, Rifkin sees the use of hydrogen cells, using electrolysis to produce the hydrogen, as the best option. Already the European Union has begun initiatives to accelerate the development of a ‘hydrogen economy.’

4)      Development of a distributed power network

The ability of buildings to generate their own, and potentially excess, power allows for the establishment of what Rifkin refers to as the ‘smart intergrid’ where intelligent utility networks can direct energy to where it is needed and store excess energy. Consumers who contribute more than they consume receive payment for the power they provide. The intergrid would also include larger scale renewable power plants.

The transition to the Third Industrial Revolution is unlikely to be easy. It will ‘require a wholesale reconfiguration of the entire economic infrastructure of each country, creating millions of jobs and countless new goods and services.’ However, if we are to throw off the shackles and limitations of the Second Industrial Revolution it is a necessary step, not only for our combined economic development but also for our social development. As Rifkin puts it, ‘the Third Industrial Revolution leads to a new social vision where power itself is broadly distributed, encouraging unprecedented new levels of collaboration among people and nations. Just as the distributed communications revolution of the last decade spawned network ways of thinking, open-source sharing, and the democratisation of communications, the Third Industrial Revolution follows suit with the democratisation of energy.’

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