Image: Toshiba

While hydrogen energy may appear to be a dream, it is the way of the future. A new type of energy that is both ecologically friendly and abundant, it is now being developed and applied globally.

In Japan, achieving a so-called “hydrogen society”—a society powered by an infinite supply of clean hydrogen energy—has become a national ambition. Hydrogen energy will provide the foundation for a range of infrastructure in the future, from fuel cell cogeneration to forms of transportation such as hydrogen automobiles and buses.

Japan’s “Basic Hydrogen Strategy” lays out an action plan for 2030 and a vision for 2050. The Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (hereafter referred to as “FH2R”) is a major component of this approach.

By July 2020, the FH2R project will have demonstrated the practicality of hydrogen as an energy source. The project, which is located in Japan’s Namie town, Fukushima Prefecture, covers an area of around 220,000m2, and is equipped with a ten megawatt (MW) hydrogen production unit—the world’s largest of its kind—and a twenty megawatt (MW) solar power generation unit. Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corporation was tasked by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) with the overall management of the project, while Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc. and Iwatani Corporation were tasked with the construction work, which began in July 2018.

To gain a better understanding of FH2R and its potential applications toward realizing the vision of a hydrogen society, we spoke with those involved in the project.

“Are hydrogen cars the future of transportation?” These headlines have appeared in the news in recent years as more hydrogen vehicles and hydrogen fuelling stations have sprouted up in several countries. Hydrogen energy is garnering increased attention, and broad application is expected.

Numerous factors contribute to the rising utilization of hydrogen energy. Hydrogen does not emit CO2 during the conversion process to energy and offers a great deal of potential to address environmental challenges, including global warming. There is an infinite supply of hydrogen on the earth, and it can be generated in a variety of ways. Additionally, hydrogen energy can be stored and transmitted over great distances, which is why countries such as Japan are looking to hydrogen energy as a method to minimize their reliance on foreign energy sources such as fossil fuels. Hydrogen energy appears to be the energy source of the future.

Hydrogen is produced in the FH2R system in a hydrogen production unit that is powered by a combination of renewable energy generated in the solar power generation unit and grid electricity. Hydrogen is then stored for later use in a variety of applications. The entire process, from manufacturing to consumption, is CO2-free. The objective is to build a sustainable hydrogen supply system.

Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corporation is responsible for the overall management of the project and the hydrogen energy system as a whole. Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc. oversees the power grid’s control system, while Iwatani Corporation is responsible for hydrogen storage, supply, and a forecasting system for hydrogen demand and supply. We met with Fumiyuki Yamane of Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corporation’s Hydrogen Energy Business Division, who has been involved in the project since NEDO issued the open call.

“The FH2R system manages the production and storage of hydrogen according to the demand forecasts made by the hydrogen demand and supply forecasting system, and adjusts the amount of hydrogen produced by the hydrogen production unit to keep demand and supply balanced in the power grid. The system also employs efficient use of the electricity that comes from the renewable energy generated in the solar power generation unit. Indeed, the heart of this project is the system control technology, which manages three factors—hydrogen production and storage, supply-demand adjustments in the power grid, and the use of electricity derived from renewable energy—in the most optimal way.”

In Japan, demand for renewable energy is increasing. However, systems such as solar and wind energy generating are weather-dependent and can experience significant changes in power output. These oscillations complicate the task of balancing the supply and demand of electricity. FH2R, a large-scale system, mitigates the risks associated with these variations by adjusting the system’s supply-demand balance, harnessing renewable energy to generate hydrogen, and storing/transporting the hydrogen for diverse uses.

“FH2R is what’s called a Power-to-Gas (other terms used: power to gas, P2G, PtG) system. A number of countries in Europe, for example Germany, have been ahead in the power-to-gas field. These countries realize that they are unable to reduce CO2 emissions sufficiently and achieve their targets through the electricity sector alone, that they need to implement other measures simultaneously, including targeting the transportation and industrial sectors. As they look for the best ways to do so, they recognize that power-to-gas, which utilizes electrolysis to convert electricity, derived from renewable energy, to hydrogen, is a possible key to their strategies. In Japan, there is also a need to refine the foundational technologies for power-to-gas systems, if we’re to reduce CO2 emissions and expand the use of renewable energy. We want to be able to compete on the same playing field as countries in Europe. So there’s been a lot of anticipation surrounding the FH2R project, especially with this system being the first of its kind in the world,” said Yamane.

FH2R has begun operations as the world’s first large-scale power-to-gas conversion facility. As part of the feasibility demonstration, the facility will open in March 2020 and hydrogen production and transportation will begin in July. The hydrogen generated is planned to be used in a variety of applications, including fuel cell power generation, hydrogen-powered automobiles, and factory fuel.

Toshiba Corporation has been involved in energy infrastructure from its founding and has extensive experience with hydrogen applications. Toshiba’s long-established technological base and expertise contributed to Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corporation’s successful appointment as the project’s primary engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) provider.

“We came up with a concept that addressed both the supply-demand balance in the power grid, and the demand for hydrogen. We also demonstrated how important this would be applied in large-scale power-to-gas systems for widespread use in the future. This concept involved a variety of methods, including an environmental analysis of energy usage and analyses of the operating model. In terms of system requirements, it was important that the Iwatani Corporation’s system could calculate and generate information on how much hydrogen would be needed, and that the Tohoku Electric Power’s system could calculate and offer information on the supply-demand balance in the power grid. We also showed how important it was to have a management system that could utilize this information and meet the demands of both sides. I believe we were evaluated well based on these results,” said Yamane.

The Toshiba Group has been involved in the design and operation of a variety of large-scale infrastructure projects, including thermal and hydroelectric power plants, and its knowledge proved vital for this project, which is the world’s first large-scale hydrogen power plant.

“FH2R is significant to Toshiba as it is the largest hydrogen project undertaken so far for the company. This is also the company’s first assignment to manage the entire hydrogen energy system, from ground preparations to installation of this large-scale system. We are working with many organizations including Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc. and Iwatani Corporation, along with other suppliers like Kajima Corporation, and coordinating closely with NEDO, Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and government agencies handling the administration of Fukushima Prefecture and Namie Town.” said Yamane.

 “It’s great to see Nakajima handling the on-site communications, and keeping contact with all of the different agencies with such enthusiasm,” said Yamane. For younger employees like Nakajima, being able to gain so much on-site knowledge and expertise in the hydrogen business—a business that will continue well into the future—is a valuable experience.

“It’s been so amazing to be a part of such a large-scale project as a new joiner. In graduate school, I did some research on the storage and transportation of hydrogen. But really, I wanted to move away from the desk research, and work on commercial applications. This is my motivation in working with partner companies, and managing the progress of the project,” said Nakajima.

With the project members and partner companies making steady progress, the world’s largest-scale hydrogen energy system is now becoming a reality on the fields of Fukushima Prefecture. Yamane, who oversees the facility as Project Manager, shares the mindsets that he considers important in the day-to-day work. “Co-creation, with everyone. Doing the right thing, even when a situation seems unreasonable. Ensuring we keep our promises, and to achieve what we’ve promised. Maintaining an environment where everyone involved remains driven and motivated to make this project a success. Getting things done, making smart decisions, and staying motivated, more so than any other person involved.” He went on to say,

“We were told this would be a very challenging project. However, as all members of the project understood the significance and the contributions this project would bring, we persevered to overcome difficult situations and completed important phases of the project on schedule. Our achievements rested on the respect and trust with the people around us and the common goal as our source of motivation.”

Nakajima, who is passionate about hydrogen energy’s societal uses, predicts a bright, hydrogen-fueled future. After giving serious consideration to the potential value and purpose that hydrogen energy could provide to the world, he is now pursuing its wider implementation with all his might.

“The reality is that many people still don’t know how clean and safe an energy source hydrogen is. FH2R is an experimental facility that’s working towards a hydrogen society for 2030 and beyond. The goal of this project is to use widely available energy resources, and making hydrogen energy to be a common source of energy in the next generation. That’s the goal, but first we need to strengthen the foundation for this application in Fukushima,” said Nakajima.

FH2R delivers next-generation energy from Fukushima, an area devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake. In the opening ceremony for FH2R in March 2020, Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe shared the importance of the FH2R facility for the realization of a hydrogen society. “Fukushima Prefecture, a region severely affected by the nuclear power station accidents, is now about to turn a new page toward a hydrogen society in the future. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles and buses will run across Tokyo and hydrogen-based electricity will be used. In the year of 2020 and toward the future beyond 2020, Japan will strive to achieve a hydrogen society in a single burst. To this end, I believe that FH2R will work as the world’s largest-class innovation base.” The hydrogen produced at FH2R is also to signify the “official” recovery of the Fukushima area.

“Our work is an important part of the recovery process for Fukushima and this has been a major source of motivation for us. Our efforts will also help make hydrogen more widely known, and be recognized as an energy infrastructure in the same vein as, for example, thermal power generation. This is the expectation for the near future, and FH2R is the flagship technology that will help us realize this vision.

By conducting feasibility demonstrations of the control system we’ve been refining, we’ll be able to gain further expertise, and realize a power-to-gas system with an even more advanced management system in the future,” said Yamane.

Hydrogen energy has the potential to be the guiding light that illuminates a brighter future in several ways. And with FH2R, we take the first step—along the path to a healthy recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake and the hydrogen society toward which we are all striving.

Nedim Husomanovic

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