Energy

Report: Japan's "hydrogen society" policy "has clearly been a complete failure"

Report: Japan's "hydrogen society" policy "has clearly been a complete failure"
Toyota's high-tech Woven City technology test bed beneath Mt. Fuji is one example of an initiative that uses hydrogen in all the wrong places
Toyota's high-tech Woven City technology test bed beneath Mt. Fuji is one example of an initiative that uses hydrogen in all the wrong places
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Toyota's high-tech Woven City technology test bed beneath Mt. Fuji is one example of an initiative that uses hydrogen in all the wrong places
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Toyota's high-tech Woven City technology test bed beneath Mt. Fuji is one example of an initiative that uses hydrogen in all the wrong places
Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet's swappable hydrogen cylinder for home energy use
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Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet's swappable hydrogen cylinder for home energy use
Japanese industry is responding to terrible incentives and marching towards a "hydrogen society fantasy," says the Renewable Energy Institute
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Japanese industry is responding to terrible incentives and marching towards a "hydrogen society fantasy," says the Renewable Energy Institute
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In 2017, Japan created a pioneering national hydrogen strategy, envisaging a carbon-neutral "hydrogen society." But a Renewable Energy Institute report slams the policy as catastrophically misguided, with 70% of its 10-year budget "spent on bad ideas."

Despite the fact that it's been "revised somewhat" over the last 5-6 years, the REI claims Japan's strategy needs a complete overhaul if the country is to have any chance of catching up with Europe, China and other countries, let alone regaining any kind of early-mover advantage. Ideas like the futuristic Toyota/Woven Planet "Woven City" with its extensive use of hydrogen canisters for home energy and fuel cell vehicles for short-range transport are wildly misaligned with what this stuff is actually good for. A strategy that should be focused on decarbonization is actually pushing Japan toward higher emissions in some cases, and it's killing the country's fledgling green hydrogen industry.

The key issues in a report titled Re-examining Japan's Hydrogen Strategy: Moving Beyond the "Hydrogen Society" Fantasy can be broken down into three main areas.

1) Japan is targeting hydrogen at the wrong applications

Hydrogen is a wasteful and inefficient energy carrier compared with batteries and direct electrification, so most of the world has arrived at an understanding that hydrogen and its carriers are best targeted at things that can't be decarbonized in some other, easier way. Aviation, shipping, heavy transport and steelmaking are good examples of areas where hydrogen looks like a competitive solution.

Japan's strategy, on the other hand, pushes hydrogen heavily toward things like passenger cars (where consumers overwhelmingly prefer battery EVs) and combined "Ene-Farm" heat/power systems for buildings, when this sort of thing can be done cheaper and more energy-efficiently with heat pumps. Not to mention, who wants a situation where you're constantly having to replace hydrogen fuel canisters to keep your home powered up?

Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet's swappable hydrogen cylinder for home energy use
Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet's swappable hydrogen cylinder for home energy use

"Japan’s hydrogen strategy places 'bad idea' applications as its main focus," reads the report. As a result, the vast majority – around 70% – of the 460 billion Japanese Yen (US$3.5 billion) in primary government budgets for hydrogen programs are being directed toward things like fuel cell passenger cars, hydrogen refueling infrastructure and residential fuel cells.

The Japanese people aren't biting, despite this level of spending. Residential fuel cells will be lucky to reach one fifth of the strategy's sales target by 2030. Fuel cell cars are even less popular; at the current rate, they'll hit about 1/40th of their sales target by 2030. "The government's FCV strategy has clearly been a complete failure," reads the REI report.

2) Japan has prioritized dirty hydrogen

The strategy relies entirely on "gray" hydrogen until at least 2030, says the report. This can be produced using methane gas in a filthy Haber-Bosch process that makes nearly six tons of carbon dioxide per ton of hydrogen, while also burning methane for heat and contributing to fugitive methane emissions that are some 80-odd times worse for atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Or you can produce it via gasification of brown coal, which is roughly twice as bad again for emissions – and that's the model Japan is exploring in partnership with Australian exporters.

The early stage supply is one thing; dirty hydrogen is more or less the only kind available in bulk quantities at the moment. But the report also slams Japan for having no real roadmap towards something cleaner. It's already allowing blue and even gray hydrogen to be classified as "non-fossil energy sources" regardless of their provenance, it's yet to lay out standards for blue or green hydrogen, and its government is busily writing legislation that treats any hydrogen as good hydrogen.

This leads to ridiculous situations; the country's sixth Strategic Energy Plan calls for methane gas-fired power plants to co-fire with 30% hydrogen gas by 2030. "But if gray hydrogen is used," reads the report, "GHG emissions will be 10% higher" than if the power plants just kept burning methane.

It also positions Japan incredibly poorly from an international trade perspective; other regions are placing hydrogen production under much stricter scrutiny, and end-to-end emissions totals will very much play a part in import tariffs and the like. Japan is incentivizing its industrial sector to increase emissions and tank its exports in an emissions-focused global trade market, and it's failing to lay out a roadmap that'll make businesses want to clean things up.

Japanese industry is responding to terrible incentives and marching towards a "hydrogen society fantasy," says the Renewable Energy Institute
Japanese industry is responding to terrible incentives and marching towards a "hydrogen society fantasy," says the Renewable Energy Institute

3) The country's green hydrogen production sector is lagging behind

Green hydrogen is currently several times more expensive to produce than blue or gray hydrogen, so it's no surprise that if all hydrogen is treated as good hydrogen, and there's no indication that this situation will change any time soon, Japan's domestic green hydrogen sector is struggling. "Europe and China are in the lead and looking at the latest developments of these countries, the extent of Japan's lag is appalling," reads the REI report.

Only two Japanese companies are looking to manufacture electrolyzers, for example, and one of these has made it to limited volume production. Equipment costs per kilowatt are about six times higher than the Chinese competition, and there's no indication Japan can close that gap on its current trajectory.

Perhaps this isn't surprising; Japan is a tough part of the world for renewable energy. Its solar potential is not great, its onshore wind sector is hobbled by tough approval processes, offshore wind is expensive, and nuclear power is unlikely to meet its targets due to some very understandable safety regulations, rising costs and public opposition in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Renewable energy in Japan is expensive, so producing green hydrogen in Japan will not be cheap.

But, as the report points out, the alternative here is to pay Australia for filthy gray hydrogen that's often worse for the planet than whatever it's replacing.

"If Japan does not fundamentally revise its hydrogen strategy, the hydrogen business in Japan may lose its growth potential just like solar and wind did," concludes the report. "Japan must place its hydrogen strategy in its decarbonization strategy and rectify the idea that any type of hydrogen will do. Unless the country quickly establishes GHG emission standards for blue hydrogen that are internationally recognized, the international supply chain it is focusing efforts on will not earn trust.

"The government also needs to define what applications are truly needed to achieve decarbonization, and build a system to meet demand by supplying domestically produced hydrogen and partially supplementing that with imports in accordance with how fast renewable energy grows. If Japan changes its strategy and policies, it will be able to play an important role in the global green hydrogen business by leveraging Japanese companies’ experience gained from efforts in building a supply chain. But time is running out."

Source: Renewable Energy Insititue via Recharge

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11 comments
11 comments
Bob Stuart
If energy were not such an important topic, I could really enjoy laughing at hydrogen projects. "Hydrogen is the energy of the future, and it always will be."
claudio
Hydro gen(eration) is greener ;-)
Brian M
A somewhat unfair report, all green technologies have issues and take time to evolve (5 years is a ridiculously short time to say its a failure) .
Hydrogen might not be green at the moment but if you get the infrastructure and users in place then when it does become available, then you suddenly get that green bonus. Even the report seems to think hydrogen is the way for uses that you can't use other sources such as heavy transport, aviation. if they start using it, then a filter down is a very likely outcome.

It also happily skips over the advances being made in producing 'green' hydrogen, and electrical energy sources needed for that come directly from wind, tide, nuclear, solar etc. Plus the big advantage hydrogen is also an energy storage medium.

Also misses out that Li battery EV's also have massive disadvantages such as raw materials and recycling costs, plus the reliance of where those rare resources are plus how to manage charging these vehicles in crowded spaces like cities. Hydrogen allows the possibility of having a distribution and fill up experience close to that of petrol.

Of course, all technologies have their risk and can become outdated with alternative and unexpected technologies, but Hydrogen is still a very good bet in the energy mix. and thank goodness Japan and some other enlightened countries are prepared to explore this unlike the UK that seems to be betting on Li EV 's
Expanded Viewpoint
Despite energy being a very important topic, I still laugh at all of these boondoggles anyway!! Many men and women come up with unworkable schemes and ideas, thinking that just because they may have some up with something novel, that it's a good scheme or idea! The measure of whether it's good or bad, is does it do all of us any good? If it benefits only a few or none, then of course it's a bad idea. If it benefits many or all of us, then it's a good idea! Do you see how simple this is?
Instead of thinking logically, and considering all outcomes, men and women think of how they will benefit first, and by how much. If someone else benefits too, that's just a bonus of some kind, not the original intent.
DaveWesely
My initial concern reading this was, will it be read by the Japanese leadership? Hopefully, yes. REI is a Japanese think tank created after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident.
I love the country, but Japan has a cultural Achilles Heel, in that they defer too much to authority. They are not unique in that regard. How this obsession with hydrogen can be turned around in Japan is a real problem. Corporate leadership loses face if mistakes are admitted. The same goes for the board members. Board membership is not a legitimate democratic process among shareholders. So the issue remains firmly entrenched.
Misguided perceptions are not unique to the Japanese. Check out Brian's post.
I remember reading about the technological hurdles to hydrogen energy by a physicist about 15 years ago. It was written prior to 1999. Everything they laid out then is still relevant today. It sounds good in theory - combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce water and energy, instead of carbon and oxygen to produce to produce carbon dioxide and energy. But it's not. And intelligent people have been repeatedly pointing that out for a long time now.
It's easy to understand why hydrogen won't go away. It's a chemical energy storage solution, like oil. Which means it's a good fit for the oil companies. The only green energy that could utilize oil company infrastructure is geothermal. And that is only in the drilling, which is a small part of oil refining and distribution.
vince
Hydrogen will be helpful for some applications such as shipping, train transport, small electric planes with longer ranges, etc but small objectives just like this story authors is correct and a dead end approach and Toyoda is partially responsible for this. Toyota will eventually end up bankrupt due to the loss of almost all their car sells to America and Europe to China, Vietnam, Germany, and Tesla all taking the lions share of their former businesses (Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Suzuki, Mitsubishi, etc). Japan should have been installing millions of acres of solar and wind to generate truly green hydrogen but it instead tries to rely on old friends in Australia for repurposing coal and gas to methane and hydrogen which is less than 30% efficient. Solar conversion is far more efficient but Japan is paying a premium to keep their friends in Australia and other countries happy selling them black energy which isn't smart nor good for the planet.

Toyota should be offering it's Rav4 as a Phev and an EV only and dump the ICE only branding period. Prius should abandon the PHEV and go pure electric. They should abandon all attempts at using fuel cells for auto's and instead focus that on trains and heavier industries. But only if they agree to using green hydrogen only otherwise they defeat the whole purpose of going electric. It does the planet no good if your going electric by converting fossil fuels to another form and burning them anyway.
Trylon
I have to shake my head every time I see some ridiculous gadget like e-bikes that run off canisters of hydrogen. Silliness, indeed. Hydrogen has its place, and bicycles aren't one of them.
Nobody
Many of the people pushing hydrogen have never worked with it or comprehend the problems and potential dangers. When I read about hydrogen powered aircraft, the Hindenburg comes to mind. Too pessimistic ? Wait for the spectacular accidents.
Captain Obvious
Hydrogen is cheaper than buying AA batteries at the gas station, I'll give them that. But...

I just watched a YouTube video about Toyota's supercar of about ten years ago, the LSA. They spent a billion dollars (whatever that is in yen) on it, achieved "perfection", and sold 550 of them at $300K each. If they had spent that plus the ocean of money they've blown on hydrogen on refining their EV offerings, nobody would be driving Teslas today. Toyoda has blinders on and is running his company like a hobby. Like Mazda who are determined to make rotary engines.
I hear Toyota has a 100 Year Plan. I wonder if they will last ten years.
michael_dowling
This report does not surprise me. I am amazed at the foolish ideas being pushed by those who should know better. One idea covered by New Atlas recently takes the cake,weights hung in old mine shafts to store power. Hydrogen as a energy storage method is a prime example of foolish thinking. FCEVs are an abject failure wherever they are introduced. In the US,only California has H2 filling stations,so only people living near them could use FCEVs,and then only for local travel. Considering how small Japan is,I thought FCEVs MIGHT find a small market there,but apparently not. H2 will have a few uses for powering cargo ships,long range aircraft,and maybe long haul trucks,but not for anything else. Come to think of it,H2 is hard to store and transport,so converting H2 to ammonia which is comparatively easier to transport and store would make much more sense.
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