TOKYO -- Japan's manufacturers aim to soon debut large-scale hydrogen fuel cells for offices and other commercial facilities, helping the corporate sector save energy and meet emissions reduction targets.
Fuel cells generate heat and electricity through the reaction of hydrogen extracted from natural gas with oxygen in the air. Small-scale fuel cells of the polymer electrolyte variety already have been used in automobiles and homes.
Companies are developing larger solid oxide units to supply power to businesses. These systems produce electricity 30-40% more efficiently than polymer electrolyte cells and reliably enough to power large facilities. During operation, however, they can raise temperatures up to 1,000 C. But more durable equipment and other developments making the technology feasible to bring to market have been achieved.
Using generated electricity for power and excess heat to warm water can help businesses cut energy costs by around 20%. The process for extracting hydrogen from natural gas releases only half the carbon dioxide emitted during fossil-fuel power generation, making fuel cells useful in cutting emissions as well.
Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems plans to introduce in spring 2017 a 250kW cell that can supply facilities such as shopping centers and hotels with more than half their power. The system looks to sell for around 300 million yen ($2.76 million). The company will form a dedicated unit as soon as this fall to work with trading houses and other partners on sales. Models generating 1,000kW or more may be introduced in 2018. Factories and other heavy power users are seen as possible buyers.
Japan's largest boiler maker, Miura, will release a smaller 5kW cell in fiscal 2017. Trials in restaurants with partners such as Tokyo Gas and Osaka Gas show the cells trimming energy bills by 20% in some cases, the company said. The cells will be sold to restaurants, welfare facilities and other smaller-scale enterprises through channels including those developed by gas companies.
Kyocera looks to introduce a roughly 3kW cell in fiscal 2017. Fuji Electric plans to bring a medium-scale model producing around 50kW to market in fiscal 2018, envisioning buyers including supermarkets and hospitals and a price of around 50 million yen. Hitachi Zosen is developing its own midsize cell.
The debut prices mean fuel-cell buyers would need more than 10 years to recoup purchase and installation costs. Producers aim to cut prices by around two-thirds, exploiting cost savings from large-scale production as the technology catches on. Japan's government also is exploring subsidies for installing commercial fuel cells that could take effect as soon as fiscal 2017.
Japan aims to cut commercial-sector carbon emissions 40% from the fiscal 2013 level by fiscal 2030 -- a far steeper drop than the 7% asked of the industrial sector, which has been engaged in energy-saving efforts for years. Fuel cells in offices and elsewhere could play a major role in meeting that target.