The hydrogen plan for Japan, which was revealed in late 2017 as a world first, won’t help the country decarbonize, according to the Renewable Energy Institute (REI), a Japanese think tank on renewable energy. The most recent assessment, which is highly damning, calls for a strategy to be “fundamentally altered” and even labels the components already in place as “fanciful and awful” and “a complete disaster.”
However, Japan has defined the vision of a “hydrogen society where it is used in all sectors,” while encouraging and subsidizing the use of highly polluting gray H2. It is generally agreed that hydrogen should only be used in applications where it would be difficult to achieve decarbonization through other methods. The failure of the Japanese government’s strategy is shown in the first words of the REI study, which just has the single title “Re-examining Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy: Moving beyond the Hydrogen Society’s Fantasy” (which describes the report’s substance).
Three mistakes are identified as needing “immediate correction”: lack of prioritization of intervention areas, preference for gray and blue hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, and disregard for green hydrogen generation on a national scale.
Vehicles with fuel cells are marked out
The absence of priority application fields is highlighted in particular due to its recurrent choice of “poor ideas”. Particularly notable is the decision to unqualifiedly promote the use of fuel cells in automobiles and the simultaneous generation of heat and electricity.
More than half of Tokyo’s 3.2 billion euros allocated to hydrogen development went toward building a network of refueling stations as well as fuel cells for cars and homes. A result? The REI characterized battery sales for cars or homes as “sluggish.” At the present pace, Japan will only sell 20,000 fuel-cell automobiles.
As if that weren’t enough, the government “changed direction” to concentrate on the co-combustion of hydrogen and ammonia in existing thermal power plants after realizing that its hydrogen strategy, which primarily focused on residential fuel cells and fuel cell vehicles, had stalled. This is nonsense insofar as it aims to purely and simply “extend the life of the electricity produced from coal, which is supposed to be phased out in 2030.”
Absence of an eco-conscious vision
The REI highlights the lack of an eco-responsible vision of the Japanese authorities, who prioritize gray hydrogen derived from fossil fuels and provide financial aid for it. “Until’ at least 2030, the main source of supply in the government’s strategy is gray hydrogen, which does not contribute at all to the reduction of CO2 emissions,” the REI states. Furthermore, it doesn’t even outline the allowable quantities of blue hydrogen emissions (also known as gray hydrogen with carbon capture and storage).
According to the report, a co-combustion rate of 30% hydrogen and 70% methane in power plants, as suggested by the government’s Strategic Energy Plan 2021, would actually increase emissions by 10% compared to zero co-firing because the emissions associated with the production of gray hydrogen by steam methane reforming are 35% higher than those associated with the combustion of natural gas.
Delayed green hydrogen generation
In addition, the report by the REI identifies the “greatest concern” as the national production of green hydrogen is significantly delayed due to the priority given to fossil hydrogen. When compared to Europe and China, it is even called “appalling,” both in terms of the number of products produced and the growth of the electrolyzer manufacturing business.
“Chinese and European businesses that are already engaged in the commercial development of electrolyzers have shipped anywhere between 1,000 and 3,500 units, and they have plans to erect a gigawatt-scale manufacturing facility in the coming years. However, one of the two [significant] Japanese electrolyzer manufacturers is still in the demonstration stage, and although the other has begun delivering units, the size is still smaller than that of businesses in other nations.
«Following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 and having to rely on foreign fossil fuels for many years, Japan is anticipated to benefit from the trend of switching to renewable energy and take the lead on a worldwide scale. “Decarbonization and independence from fossil fuels,” says Japanese business magnate and REI founder Masayoshi Son. However, he insisted on maintaining the outdated energy supply infrastructure through his policies. Even now, some government officials still cling to fossil fuels and nuclear power despite the enormous potential of renewable energy in Japan. Japan may play a significant role in the global green hydrogen sector if it modifies its strategy and regulations and makes use of the knowledge that its businesses have amassed from attempts to establish a supply chain. But time is of the essence.