Japan developed a trailblazing national hydrogen plan in 2017 with the goal of creating a “hydrogen society” that is carbon neutral. However, a report from the Renewable Energy Institute criticizes the policy as being “spent on weak ideas” to the tune of 70% of its 10-year budget.
The REI asserts that Japan’s strategy needs to be completely reworked if it is to have any chance of catching up with Europe, China, and other nations, let alone reclaiming any type of early-mover advantage, despite the fact that it has been “updated substantially” over the last 5–6 years. Ideas like the futuristic Toyota/Woven Planet “Woven City,” which heavily relies on hydrogen canisters for residential energy and fuel cell cars for short-distance transportation, are wildly at odds with what this material is actually useful for. In certain circumstances, a policy that should be centered on decarbonization is actually driving Japan’s emissions higher and harming the nation’s budding green hydrogen industry.
Re-examining Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy: Moving Beyond the “Hydrogen Society” Fantasy breaks down the main concerns into three categories.
Japan is concentrating on the incorrect uses of hydrogen
The majority of the world has come to the conclusion that hydrogen and its carriers are best aimed at things that cannot be decarbonized in another, easier method since hydrogen is a wasteful and inefficient energy carrier when compared to batteries and direct electrification. Aerospace, shipping, heavy transportation, and steelmaking are a few industries where hydrogen appears to be a viable alternative.
While heat pumps can accomplish the same job more cheaply and efficiently, Japan’s policy actively promotes hydrogen for items like passenger cars and combination “Ene-Farm” heat/power systems for buildings.
The paper states that “Japan’s hydrogen strategy places ‘poor idea’ applications as its key focus.” As a result, the vast majority of the principal government funding for hydrogen programs, which total 460 billion Japanese Yen (US$3.5 billion), or around 70%, are going into things like fuel cell passenger cars, infrastructure for hydrogen recharging, and residential fuel cells.
Japan has made filthy hydrogen a priority.
According to the paper, the approach is totally dependent on “gray” hydrogen until at least 2030. This can be made by burning methane for heat in a dirty Haber-Bosch process, which produces approximately six tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of hydrogen. Over the course of a 20-year period, fugitive methane emissions are about 80 times worse for climatic warming than carbon dioxide. Alternately, brown coal can be gasified to make it, which is nearly twice as harmful for emissions. Japan is testing this strategy in collaboration with Australian exporters.
The report also criticizes Japan for having no clear path towards a better future. It has yet to set standards for blue or green hydrogen, but already permits gray and even blue hydrogen to be labeled as “non-fossil energy sources” regardless of where it comes from. Meanwhile, its government is hard at work drafting laws that treats all hydrogen as good hydrogen.
The nation is falling behind in the creation of green hydrogen.
If all hydrogen is classified as good hydrogen, it should come as no surprise that Japan’s domestic green hydrogen sector is having trouble. Green hydrogen is now several times more expensive to generate than blue or gray hydrogen, and there’s no sign that this scenario will improve anytime soon.
For instance, just two Japanese businesses are attempting to produce electrolyzers, and only one of these has reached limited volume production. There is little sign that Japan will be able to close the gap on its current trajectory, as equipment prices per kilowatt are roughly six times greater than the Chinese competitors.
This may not come as a surprise given that Japan is a challenging region for renewable energy. Nuclear power is unlikely to meet its targets due to some very understandable safety regulations, rising costs, and public opposition in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Its solar potential is not great, its onshore wind sector is constrained by difficult approval processes, offshore wind is expensive. Producing green hydrogen in Japan won’t be inexpensive due to the high cost of renewable energy there.
However, as the paper makes clear, the alternative in this situation is to pay Australia for filthy gray hydrogen, which is frequently more harmful to the environment than what it is replacing.