when the world’s largest metropolitan area commits to cleaner power, it could have a significant ripple effect globally

Building a hydrogen society

Japan’s plan to go green

Text by Tim Hornyak

If you want to get a glimpse of the future of transport in Tokyo, hop on one of the hydrogen buses at Tokyo Station. Not only do they let you enjoy the scenic route to Tokyo Big Sight — the capital’s premiere exhibition venue — these buses are helping make the city cleaner.

As international awareness about the impact of climate change continues to increase, communities around the world are trying to go green. So, when the world’s largest metropolitan area commits to cleaner power, it could have a significant ripple effect globally. Despite its high cost and the associated technical challenges, hydrogen is set to be a major fuel source in Japan’s leading city.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games on the horizon, and serving as a catalyst for change in Japan, Tokyo is taking concrete steps to make hydrogen power a reality. One of the most abundant elements in the universe, hydrogen can power vehicles safely and efficiently, producing water alone as the byproduct. Former Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe compared the potential legacy of hydrogen from the 2020 Games to the Shinkansen bullet trains that are the heritage of the 1964 Olympics in the capital. As one example, the 6,000-unit Olympic Village will be entirely run on hydrogen fuel cells.

But transportation is the main way that Japanese are experiencing hydrogen power. Japanese automakers were the first to commercialise hydrogen cars on the mass market. They’re basically electric vehicles powered by a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the air. Over the past few years, Honda launched the Clarity Fuel Cell sedan and Toyota introduced the Mirai both in Japan and overseas. Toyota — which debuted the hybrid Prius 20 years ago — is particularly sanguine about the technology: it wants to grow production capacity ten-fold to 30,000 hydrogen vehicles per year by 2020. And it makes sense to begin Tokyo’s hydrogen campaign this way. Japan has over 2,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road today, and the central government wants that figure to grow to 40,000 by 2020 and to 800,000 by 2030, to be served by a network of 900 refueling stations nationwide.

Tokyo, for its part, currently has two hydrogen-powered public buses rolling in the capital along with 13 hydrogen filling stations, one right by the symbol of the city itself, Tokyo Tower. To help defray the cost of setting up refueling stations — which can run to ¥500 million for each, or four times as much as a gas station — Tokyo is investing some ¥40 billion in hydrogen stations and other infrastructure; it wants to have 35 stations by 2020 and 80 by 2025.

Aside from the cost, hydrogen faces some challenges as a viable clean fuel. While it can be produced by splitting water molecules using electrolysis or solar energy, it is most often made through steam methane reforming, which produces greenhouse gases. However, some entrepreneurs are trying to change this. A University of Western Australia spinoff, the Hazer Group, has developed a method of using iron ore as a catalyst in hydrogen production. As natural gas passes through heated iron ore, it breaks down into hydrogen and carbon, but the latter is captured as graphite instead of being released as carbon dioxide. The process relies on cheap iron ore and represents at least a 50% emissions reduction compared with steam methane reforming, according to Hazer. The company is planning a commercial hydrogen plant and is also keen to help make Japan’s hydrogen dream come true.

“On a large scale, we have the potential to lower the costs and increase the availability of clean hydrogen worldwide,” Hazer Group Managing Director Geoff Pocock told The Australian. “This would be a clear advantage for the Australian hydrogen sector as demand for hydrogen, particularly from Japan, is increasing at a dramatic rate.”

Currently, Tokyo’s hydrogen buses ply the route from Tokyo Station to Tokyo Big Sight. Over the next two years, the capital aims to increase this small fleet to 100 buses. Much of the hydrogen powering the buses is made at oil refineries in Japan, mostly from the production of caustic soda — better known as lye — which releases hydrogen gas as a byproduct.

“We believe that hydrogen will significantly reduce the burden on the environment, diversify energy supply sources, lower the high economic knock-on effects, and can be used in the event of disasters,” explains Chizu Hirose, a spokesperson at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Environment.

According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan’s hydrogen and fuel cell market is expected to grow to ¥1 trillion by 2030 and to ¥8 trillion by 2050. The government recently began inviting bids from companies interested in managing hydrogen refueling stations at Tokyo’s Haneda international airport. It is also trying to promote the use of hydrogen-powered forklifts and hydrogen fuel cell batteries for homes and businesses. This is part of a larger plan to diversify Japan’s energy mix, which saw increased reliance on fossil fuels following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“Hydrogen energy holds the trump card for energy security and measures to address global warming,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said earlier this year. “Japan will build an international hydrogen supply chain that extends from production to transportation and consumption ahead of the world.”

Part of that supply chain could come from Europe. Norway’s NEL Hydrogen, a global hydrogen production and distribution firm, has partnered with Kawasaki Heavy Industries and others to show how liquefied hydrogen can be manufactured with renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, then shipped abroad on tankers. The ¥280 million Project Hyper is funded in part by the Research Council of Norway, also known as ENERGIX.

“We are looking at a scenario in which production of 225,000 tonnes of hydrogen could fuel as many as three million cars annually,” Bjørn Simonsen, market development director at NEL, said in a press release. “We are looking forward to contributing to the project with our worldwide and extensive experience within hydrogen production from renewable energy.” 

“We believe that hydrogen will significantly reduce the burden on the environment”