TOKYO -- Japan aims to have 80 new hydrogen refueling stations in place by fiscal 2021 under a government-backed effort that includes the country's largest automakers and energy groups.
Eleven companies including Toyota Motor and JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy jointly founded Japan H2 Mobility and aim to nearly double the nation's count of 92 hydrogen stations. The goal is to give long-range fuel cell vehicles a leg up on electric ones, which hold a significant lead among low-emission technologies.
The company is "a major step toward realizing a hydrogen society," Hiroshige Seko, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, said Monday in a video message. Participating companies will provide funds as well as staff for the project.
Hydrogen stations cost around 400 million yen to 500 million yen ($3.78 million to $4.73 million) to build. The government will pick up roughly half the tab of Japan H2's building spree.
Toyota launched its first hydrogen cars at the end of 2014, and Honda Motor followed suit in 2016. The government aims to have 40,000 fuel cell vehicles on the roads by fiscal 2020, but with the count currently at just 2,000, that goal is a long shot.
Refueling stations "sometimes have just one or two cars come in per day," according to a JXTG executive, and generally operate in the red. Investing in a station independently is virtually impossible, which is one of the reasons the companies decided to team up.
Meanwhile, the country is home to nearly 100,000 electric vehicles. They can be charged at homes or various establishments, and Japan has over 20,000 locations with quick-charging equipment.
Hydrogen cars, however, can drive 700km to 800km before needing to refuel, whereas electric ones have a top range of only 300km to 400km. Fuel cell vehicles also take only about three minutes to fill up, roughly the same as a gasoline or diesel car, whereas electric vehicles take tens of minutes even at quick-charging stations.
Electric vehicles' short driving distances make them ill-suited for business applications, which opens up the possibility that "fuel cell vehicles may find traction as trucks and buses," says a source at a major Japanese energy company. Setting up hydrogen stations at facilities such as distribution centers would also help mitigate the lack of refueling centers.
Japan also intends to soften regulations on hydrogen stations, including letting them operate unmanned and allowing low-cost hydrogen compressor equipment to be used. In doing so, it aims to roughly halve the cost of building a station by 2020. It is also weighing revising laws to make it easier to incorporate hydrogen stations into Japan's existing 31,000 gas stations.
The world is tilting increasingly toward electric vehicles, however. With the U.K. and France planning to end sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040, and China and India aiming to restrict gasoline car sales, automakers around the world are stepping up electric vehicle operations, seeing the technology as the likely next big thing.
Japanese companies view the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a chance to encourage the spread of fuel cell vehicles, but the plan could backfire if they cannot quickly build a convincing case for the cars.