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Climate Change

Japan to bet big on hydrogen to meet 2050 zero-emission goal

Non-carbon emitting fuel would be used for power generation, autos and steelmaking

A Toyota Mirai is fueled at a hydrogen fueling station in La Canada, California. Japan is counting on the fuel to make up for shortcomings in wind and solar power. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Lab)

TOKYO -- Japan will boost the amount of power it plans to generate using hydrogen, looking to burn about 10 million tons annually by 2030, roughly equivalent to the output of more than 30 nuclear reactors.

The new target is being set to allow Japan to reach zero net carbon emissions by 2050, a goal set by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in October.

While the plan is to utilize solar and wind energy to reduce the country's carbon footprint, the output of those sources varies with the weather, so existing power plants would still be needed. If instead noncarbon-emitting hydrogen can be used as fuel, greenhouse gas emissions can be cut even further. In addition, excess power generated from renewable sources when weather conditions are optimal can be used to produce stores of hydrogen.

The effort will be supported by 2 trillion yen ($19.2 billion) in new funding as well as tax incentives for targeted capital spending.

One barrier to boosting hydrogen consumption is the high cost, running almost 10 times more, per cubic meter, than liquefied natural gas.

To reduce the cost of hydrogen to around that of LNG, the government estimates that the future annual consumption goal should reach 5 million to 10 million tons. 

The aim is to spur on hydrogen-fueled electric power generation as well as accelerate the adoption of fuel cell vehicles. This will be combined with the expansion of renewable energy and reduced reliance on coal and other fossil fuels to meet the 2050 goal.

The private sector is also moving toward adopting hydrogen. The Japan Hydrogen Association, or JH2A, was formed Monday by 88 companies including Toyota Motor and gas supplier Iwatani.

Toyota has taken the lead in the private sector with its 2014 launch of the Mirai, the world's first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. However, only about 11,000 of the vehicles had been sold globally through September.

About 700 fuel cell vehicles in total were sold in Japan during the fiscal year through March 2020, far below the roughly 20,000 electric vehicles sold in the market that same year.

Toyota rolls out a new Mirai model this month that extends the driving distance on one full hydrogen charge by 30% from the current 650 km. The use of fuel cell commercial vehicles that follow fixed routes, which lends to regular recharging, will be advocated as well.

Toyota has taken the lead in the private sector with its 2014 launch of the Mirai, the world's first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. (Photo courtesy of the Province of British Columbia) 

The JH2A will promote hydrogen in other areas. Nippon Steel and other steelmakers aim to commercialize by 2050 production technology that consumes hydrogen instead of coal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Japanese LNG importer JERA looks to switch to hydrogen and attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But if steel and power production via hydrogen are ever to become a reality, the ability to buy large volumes of the fuel at affordable prices will be necessary.

In 2018, a consortium of Japanese companies started a pilot business in Australia in which hydrogen is extracted and liquefied from lignite, a low-grade coal, and shipped to Japan. The first trial shipment is planned for 2021. The alliance includes Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Iwatani and trading house Marubeni.

Kawasaki Heavy has taken the lead in developing a vessel to ferry liquefied hydrogen, leveraging its LNG ship technology. The company seeks to commercialize large hydrogen ships by 2030.

Iwatani and Osaka-area utility Kansai Electric Power plan by 2025 to commercialize ships powered by hydrogen. The vessels will have fuel cells installed.

Warehousing power via hydrogen is seen as a promising application. Toshiba possesses the technology to convert electricity to hydrogen, which can be stored or transported until the gas is later converted back to electricity. The tech will be used to stabilize power supplies from renewable energy sources.

Toshiba is a participant in one of the world's biggest hydrogen plants, located in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture.

The JH2A will debate ways to expand the use of hydrogen, then give its recommendations to the government in February.

"We will involve a wide range of players and reduce costs," Hiroshi Kajiyama, the minister of economy, trade and industry, said at the association's news conference.

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