The Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field is reviving an earthquake-ravaged region and significantly bolstering Japan’s ambitions to establish a hydrogen society.
Since the 1970s, various countries have been attempting to develop a role for hydrogen in their energy systems, despite the fact that the global interest in hydrogen produced from renewable energy may feel comparatively recent. Since 1974, when it formed the “Sunshine Project,” Japan has actively investigated the production of hydrogen, and since 1978, it has conducted research and development on fuel cell technology under the “Moonlight Project.” However, the country did not adopt an official strategy for hydrogen until 2014, when it proclaimed in its 4th Basic Energy Plan that, due to technical advancements, “now is the time to conduct complete discourse on a hydrogen-powered society.”
Three years after the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy, the government announced its 2014 plan in response to its shattered energy industry, which included utilities suffering significant losses due to record imports of fossil fuels and uncertainties on reactor restarts. The strategy anticipated that hydrogen would play a “central” role in future energy and heat generation. To introduce hydrogen as a fuel source and finally establish it in daily life and industrial activity, the government, according to the plan, would need to fund a variety of research and demonstration projects.
Following the 4th Basic Energy Plan, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Business (METI) established a council comprised of industry, academia, and government to study optimal strategies for future hydrogen energy consumption. The agency then swiftly disseminated a road map to facilitate the implementation of stationary fuel cells and hydrogen power generation. The roadmap envisioned a monumental role for the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Japan’s national research and development agency, to promote power-to-gas (P2G) development and related processes, such as hydrogen power generation and hydrogen production via water electrolysis.
In 2014, NEDO initiated the development of a small-scale hydrogen production capacity of around 5 to 30 normal cubic meters per hour (Nm3/hr). As the endeavor gained momentum, so did interest in its utility. In 2016, Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corp. launched the “Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field” (FH2R), a major project it was developing alongside utility Tohoku Electric Power Co. Inc. and major gas and energy company Iwatani Corp.
As a result of the government’s 5th Basic Energy Plan, which prioritized P2G technology for storing and utilizing hydrogen energy, FH2R became a project of national significance. In July 2018, the municipality of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture began building on the project, and by March 2020, the development was deemed complete.
FH2R has been routinely recognized as one of the world’s largest projects of its sort for the past two years. According to project partners, a 10-MW-class electrolyzer is powered by a 20-MW solar PV array constructed on a 180,000-square-meter land and grid electricity. According to its designers, it can create, store, and deliver up to 1,200 Nm 3 /hr of hydrogen at rated power operation (Figure 1).
The alkaline water electrolysis system was created and constructed by a subsidiary of Asahi Kasei, a Japanese multinational chemical company founded in 1931. Asahi Kasei Engineering reported that Toshiba placed an order for its Aqualyzer electrolysis equipment in 2017. The electrolyzer employs chlor-alkali membrane electrolysis, a well-established commercial technique that simultaneously produces chlorine, caustic soda, and hydrogen from brine and electricity. “After its installation in November 2019, various trial operations of the system were conducted to establish that the product hydrogen fulfilled the needed quality criteria. Hydrogen supply operations will commence in March ,” Asahi Kasei stated. Participants in the project also evaluated the system’s responsiveness to variable power input.
Toshiba, which served as the project’s primary engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) provider, is currently in charge of the project’s administration as well as the overall hydrogen energy system. Tohoku Electric oversees the power grid control system, while Iwatani is in charge of hydrogen storage, supply, and demand and supply forecasts.
According to Toshiba, the system has performed primarily as intended. “The FH2R system manages the production and storage of hydrogen based on demand forecasts made by the hydrogen demand and supply forecasting system, and adjusts the amount of hydrogen produced by the hydrogen production unit to maintain a balance between demand and supply in the power grid,” the document states. In light of recent electricity market reforms, project participants added a function last year to “provide appropriate control in the event of a reverse power flow in the solar photovoltaic system as part of our research to improve the utilization of the hydrogen energy system as a means of balancing electricity supply and demand.”
This component will be vital for two of the project’s most important goals: establishing business models for hydrogen use and hydrogen sales “to actualize demand-based generation of hydrogen,” according to NEDO. Both aims are currently being tested and confirmed in a vast array of Namie-led initiatives.