Japan is moving faster towards hydrogen

Japan is moving faster toward hydrogen

If you can prove something like a hydrogen society can work in a city like Tokyo, then it’s a matter of how do they scale it, how do the Japanese ensure that all the ancillary consequences have been addressed, and you only really do this by testing it out.

Japan is moving faster than expected toward an hydrogen energy future. Prime Minister Abe has become a vocal advocate for hydrogen – both to stimulate developments in technology and to help the resource-poor nation lower greenhouse gases. With Japan relying more on fossil fuels since the shuttering of most of its nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster almost six years ago, it’s a push that’s gained more urgency.

Toyota is at the forefront of Japan’s efforts to use hydrogen and fuel cells to power cars, heat homes and keep factories running. Other companies pursuing the technology include Panasonic Corp, Toshiba Corp and JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp.

Japan is leading

Japan’s enthusiasm for hydrogen contrasts with growing momentum towards electric cars in the US and Europe, where automakers from Volkswagen to General Motors are working on dozens of models due to be released in the next few years. It’s one of the few ways the nation can both cut emissions and its reliance on imported fuels as it winds down nuclear power following the meltdown at Fukushima.

“It’s about increasing the number of players and putting in place hydrogen infrastructure in the most appropriate locations so that hydrogen business becomes viable in 10 to 15 years,” said Taiyo Kawai, project general manager at Toyota’s R&D and Engineering Management Division.


Tokyo’s mayor Masuzoe si in close contact with city leaders, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who are allies in the fight against climate-induced disruption.

“Without big cities you cannot find out a good answer to climate change,” he says. “Of course nation-to-nation relationships are very important, but now it’s the network of big cities that counts… My ambition is to make Tokyo the model city for the environmentally friendly city.”


Fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity, leaving only water vapor as a byproduct. They’ve been in use for decades and gained prominence when the US space program took off in the 1950s. It’s only in the last few years that they’ve become cheap enough for more widespread commercial applications. Sourcing and handling the hydrogen for them remains one of the biggest logistical and economical challenges.
Japan’s drive to use the lightest element is running alongside its incentives for electric vehicles, though the nation has done more than any other to establish fuel cells as a viable technology for power generation and maybe cars as well.

Olympic showcase

One catalyst is the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, a major showcase for Japan’s technological prowess. The capital has announced plans to spend ¥45.2bn ($400mn) on fuel-cell vehicle subsidies and hydrogen stations by the time of the games. Toyota envisions more than 100 fuel-cell buses crisscrossing the nation’s capital by then.

What Japan needs is a proof of concept, something that is an ideal that you’re going to aim for. And the Olympics are the perfect showcase. If you can prove something like a hydrogen society can work in a city like Tokyo, then it’s a matter of how do they scale it, how do the Japanese ensure that all the ancillary consequences have been addressed, and you only really do this by testing it out.

“Hydrogen energy is an ace in the hole for energy security and measures against global warming,” Prime Minister Abe said in a speech to parliament on January 20. “Thanks to deregulation, a hydrogen society of the future is about to begin here in Japan.”

Examples of projects under development include:

  • Toyota has been selling a fuel-cell vehicle called the Mirai since late 2014 and targets annual global sales of 30,000 hydrogen vehicles by 2020
  • GM and Honda Motor Co plan to begin jointly making fuel-cell systems around 2020
  • The Japanese government is targeting 1.4mn installations of “ene-farm” residential fuel-cells by 2020 and 5.3mn by 2030

Battery and fuel cell in a container

Toshiba is offering products called H2One, which combine a storage battery and fuel cell in a container. It’s designed for sites with bigger energy demand and can be used in disasters.

One such project in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, can supply enough electricity and hot water for 300 people for a week.

Zero emissions in 2040

The government aims to be producing hydrogen from emissions-free sources by 2040.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Iwatani Corp are among companies developing technologies to produce hydrogen through the gasification of lignite coal and studying how to ship liquefied hydrogen in the western city of Kobe.

While Japan’s program is global in reach, envisioning liquid hydrogen supplies coming from the US and Australia, the projects in most other places envision the fuel being produced and consumed locally, according to Bloombergs analyst Ali Izadi-Najafabadi.

Even so, for all the promise offered by fuel cells in homes and cars, widespread use of hydrogen would require setting up supply chains and costly infrastructure such as filling stations from scratch. For that reason, Musk, the founder of Tesla Inc, has famously scorned hydrogen vehicles as expensive and impractical, particularly since lithium-ion batteries that power his own cars are already widely available.

“Electric vehicles are obviously cheaper,” said Hiroyuki Sato, a consultant at Nomura Research Institute. “There are charging stations, and they are being mass produced.”


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