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Energy

Japan's hydrogen fueling network expands to gas stations

Eneos chips away at key hurdle for fuel cell cars as regulations ease

An Eneos hydrogen station in Tokyo: Eased regulations will enable hydrogen pumps to be set up at existing gas stations.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japanese companies are moving to expand the country's still-nascent hydrogen fueling infrastructure, taking advantage of recent deregulation as Tokyo positions the fuel as central to its pivot away from carbon.

Eneos Holdings, Japan's largest oil distributor, will install hydrogen pumps at existing gas stations -- a first for the nation, according to the company. The effort will begin in the spring of 2022 with a total of two stations, in Kanagawa and Aichi prefectures. The company envisions this as a new business opportunity for its 13,000 Eneos-branded gas stations across the country.

Japan's basic policy on hydrogen in 2017 included proposals to ease regulations to encourage construction of filling stations, which had been expensive and technically challenging owing in part to strict safety requirements. Cuts to red tape have since helped the private sector move forward with new facilities -- a vital step in promoting fuel cell vehicles.

In particular, Eneos' plan to sell gasoline and hydrogen at the same location was made possible by January 2020 guidance from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on safety-related legislation.

The law had mandated that such necessary equipment as compressors be located a certain distance away from hydrogen filling stations and walled off with reinforced concrete for safety reasons. METI simplified these requirements, letting hydrogen fueling facilities be built even at downtown gas stations.

Iwatani, Japan's top hydrogen supplier, is setting up hydrogen filling stations around the country. METI guidance scrapped requirements to build sprinkler systems to cool down hydrogen storage trailers, allowing for cheaper, simpler facilities. Iwatani now has six of these under construction.

The regulatory changes span dozens of rules, covering areas including equipment materials and facility locations and management, and enabling such innovations as unstaffed fueling stations.

Besides the deregulatory push, the government is earmarking 11 billion yen ($105 million) in the fiscal 2021 budget to provide financial support to private-sector hydrogen station projects.

The Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference of Japan estimates that such measures as regulatory changes can cut the cost of building a hydrogen fueling station to 200 million yen from the initial 500 million yen or so.

Local governments are jumping on the hydrogen bandwagon, with 100 fuel cell buses expected to roll out around the country, mainly in Tokyo. But a lack of fueling infrastructure remains an issue in many areas. Sapporo, which aims to introduce 3,000 fuel cell vehicles by 2030, so far has just one mobile filling station.

While Japan is the first big backer of hydrogen, other countries have begun eyeing the technology as well.

A total of 5,350 fuel cell passenger and light commercial vehicles were sold in South Korea in 2020, according to Tokyo-based research firm MarkLines -- seven times the Japanese figure. The European Union released a hydrogen strategy in July with a focus on commercial vehicles, including trucks and buses. China has been a leader in adopting fuel cell buses.

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