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Toyota, JXTG, others to quadruple Japan's hydrogen stations

Automakers, energy companies look to turn around fuel cell cars' fortunes

JXTG operates hydrogen filling stations, like this one in Yokohama, under the Eneos brand.

TOKYO -- Toyota Motor, JXTG Holdings and other Japanese companies plan to build roughly 300 hydrogen filling stations for fuel cell cars over 10 years starting in 2018, aiming to encourage broader adoption while lowering costs.

A new company will be established for the project this year. Tokyo Gas, Idemitsu Kosan, industrial gas maker Iwatani and Honda Motor, among others, intend to invest in the venture alongside Toyota and JXTG, with the state-backed Development Bank of Japan considering a stake as well. Around 10 companies will sign a basic agreement soon regarding the new company, which will likely start with tens of billions of yen in capital.

Japan currently has about 90 hydrogen fueling stations nationwide, 40 of which are operated by JXTG and around 20 of which are run by Iwatani. With only 1,700 or so fuel cell cars on the road, stations remain unprofitable and costly to operate.

The expansion plan would more than quadruple the number of fueling stations to about 400. Filling equipment should become cheaper to mass-produce, bringing down construction costs per location that currently stand at 400 million yen to 600 million yen ($3.58 million to $5.37 million) -- at least double the cost of a gas station.

JXTG and Iwatani are considering transferring their existing hydrogen filling stations to the new venture. Putting all of these operations under one roof would make operation and capital spending more efficient.

Toyota and Honda are participating in a bid to boost sales of their fuel cell vehicles. They see broader adoption making the cars more affordable. The Development Bank of Japan hopes the effort will help revitalize regional economies.

The government targets 900 hydrogen fueling stations and 800,000 fuel cell cars in the country by 2030. To this end, it subsidizes about half the cost of building and operating filling stations, and it plans to support the new hydrogen-station venture to further expand the market.

Electric cars in front

Electric vehicles are orders of magnitude ahead of fuel cell cars. Around 100,000 electric vehicles reportedly were sold in Japan through the end of fiscal 2016, and adding plug-in hybrids boosts the total to nearly 200,000. Fast-charging technology is entering broader use, with around 7,100 systems in operation as of February, according to an organization that promotes electric vehicles. Technology that can slash charging times by two-thirds, expected to debut this year, looks likely to spark even faster market growth.

As for fuel cell cars, the only available models are Toyota's Mirai and Honda's Clarity Fuel Cell, which are pricier than similar electric vehicles. Though they take just three minutes or so to fill up and can travel farther than their electric counterparts, they remain relatively obscure.

A senior JXTG official noted a chicken-and-egg problem: fuel cell cars are useless without filling stations, but the stations cannot make money without cars to fuel. Though closing the massive gap with electric vehicles will be no easy task, automakers and infrastructure builders are finally working in sync to grow the market.


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