Japan rises to challenge of becoming 'hydrogen society'

Hydrogen viewed as key to energy needs after Fukushima

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Since the 2011 onset of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has had to drastically revise an energy policy that had long heralded atomic power as its main source of energy.

The new energy policy announced in April outlines plans to decrease Japan’s nuclear dependence as much as possible, while boosting renewable energy sources.

At the same time, it also says the government will promote the use of hydrogen to pave the way for a “hydrogen society.”

“Hydrogen, which can achieve high energy efficiency, low environmental burden and capability for emergency use, provided appropriate usage, is expected to play a central role as a secondary energy source,” the government’s policy report said.

Reflecting growing demand for alternative forms of energy that are clean and efficient, automakers are set to sell their first commercial fuel-cell vehicles, powered by hydrogen, starting next year.

“Why do we need to promote hydrogen energy? The Japanese government lays out about four main reasons — energy-saving, (the) environment, energy security and industrial competitiveness,” said Eiji Ohira, director of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technology Group at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (Nedo), a Kanagawa Prefecture-based semi-public body in charge of research and development of new energy sources.

Hydrogen emits no carbon dioxide when burned, so it is considered clean energy that can greatly help reduce greenhouse gases.

Expectations are high, but so are the challenges.

Setting up expensive hydrogen stations for FCVs, securing sufficient supplies of the gas and coming up with ways to produce it without emitting carbon dioxide are just a few of the hurdles.

Hydrogen alone hardly exists as a natural resource. It needs to be separated from other elements and molecules. It’s mainly known as a key component of water.

Currently, fossil fuels, including naphtha, natural gas and coal, are the main sources of hydrogen, which is generated by a method called “steam reforming,” in which steam is added to methane to yield hydrogen. A huge amount of hydrogen is also produced as a by-product from the production of caustic soda plants and from coke ovens.

Nedo published a white paper on hydrogen energy in July that states the importance of promoting hydrogen-related products, which in Japan are expected to develop into a market worth ¥1 trillion by 2030 and ¥8 trillion by 2050.

This would help strengthen Japan’s industrial competitiveness because it has the most fuel cell-related patents in the world. Fuel cells generate power through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.

In 2009, Japan took the lead among other countries in selling fuel cells for home use to generate power and heat.

“Japan’s competitiveness in the field of hydrogen energy is strong. In particular, our auto industry, which is Japan’s key industry that accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s jobs and 20 percent of exports, is facing fierce global competition, so it is essential to maintain competitiveness with the new field of FCVs,” the white paper said.

Expanding the presence of fuel cell vehicles is an important step, according to the industry ministry’s road map for a hydrogen society.

The first commercial FCV is scheduled to be released by Toyota Motor Co. by next April with a price tag of around ¥7 million, with the government planning to offer a ¥2 million to ¥3 million rebate to consumers.

FCVs run on electric motors. Unlike gasoline-powered vehicles, they emit only water as exhaust and produce no carbon dioxide.

Although carbon dioxide is emitted in the process of producing hydrogen, the volume is lower on average than that produced by other means, said Ohira.

Still, it’s not quite certain they will take off, given the infrastructure hurdles.

“Setting up hydrogen stations is a huge challenge . . . there are not many available spaces in the cities and the cost of land is high,” Ohira said.

A hydrogen station network would require numerous storage and delivery systems. The cost of building a single station is currently about ¥400 million to ¥500 million. So even with government subsidies, a network would require a massive investment.

By comparison, the cost of building an express charging station for electric vehicles can be less than ¥10 million, even without subsidies.

Japan plans to have 100 hydrogen stations running in 2015 and 1,000 by 2025.

There are safety issues regarding hydrogen, however, and more and more people are becoming aware of them. The gas in pure form is highly flammable and reminds many of the hydrogen explosions that blew up the concrete reactor buildings at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

This is an issue in the city of Saitama, where Tokyo Gas Co. is trying to build a hydrogen station in the Sakura district.

“They said that a hydrogen station is safe and will not pose problems of the kind that happened at the Fukushima plant, but the station will be dealing with hydrogen . . . and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Miki Kubo, a member of the Saitama Municipal Assembly. “People said a nuclear power plant would never have an accident (like Fukushima), but it did.”

Kubo, who belongs to the Japanese Communist Party, said the construction site is right next to a residential area and an elementary school. Since about 20 residents oppose the plan, construction hasn’t even begun yet, she said.

Then there’s the problem of supply. Were hydrogen to really become a common form of energy, especially for cars, Japan will have to find ways to secure enough of the gas.

According to the industry ministry, about 300 million cu. meters of hydrogen (at 0 degrees and 1 atmosphere of pressure) are distributed commercially every year. If fuel cell vehicles really expand into the millions and if hydrogen plants are built that literally generate power from the gas, the country will need to import it, said Ohira.

One FCV consumes about 1,000 cu. meters of hydrogen per year, he said.

In that case, hydrogen will need to be imported, but transporting large amounts over long distances would be costly and difficult using today’s technology. And because current production depends heavily on fossil fuels, it can’t be said at present that hydrogen is a completely carbon dioxide-free form of energy.

The hydrogen white paper thus says Japan should obtain the gas from water using electrolysis, with the process being powered by such renewable energy sources as solar and wind. That will allow hydrogen to be produced without carbon emissions.

But that won’t be easy either, because generating power from renewable energy remains expensive and unreliable due to its reliance on the weather.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.