How Japan’s big plans for a ‘hydrogen society’ fell flat


Japan will revise its hydrogen strategy by the end of May, aims to increase its supply of the fuel.

  • In 2017, Japan became the first country to devise a national strategy for hydrogen power. 
  • But its plan to expand the hydrogen market suffered delays and criticism over the fuel’s green credentials.
  • High costs have also dampened the transition to hydrogen power in homes and in vehicles.
  • For climate change news and analysis, go to News24 Climate Future.

It was once touted as a miracle solution to Japan’s energy problems: creating a “hydrogen society” by sharply ramping up use of the fuel for vehicles, industry and housing.

But the country’s plan to expand its hydrogen market and slash greenhouse emissions has suffered delays and criticism over the fuel’s green credentials.

As G7 climate ministers meet this weekend in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, here are some key points about the strategy:

Ambitious plans

In 2017, Japan became the first country to devise a national strategy for hydrogen power, aiming to drastically scale up its use by 2030.

The colourless, odourless gas is an exciting prospect on paper.

It can be produced, stored and transported in large quantities, and does not emit carbon dioxide when burned.

These qualities are attractive to Japan, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuel imports.

Most of its nuclear reactors are still offline after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and the nation set a goal two and a half years ago of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

Fuel cell blues

Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, which Japanese automakers helped pioneer, were a key part of the original plan.

The government had hoped for 40 000 of these cars to be on the road by 2020, and 800 000 by 2030.

But by the end of last year, just 7 700 units had been sold in the country since 2014.

Despite subsidies for buyers, they remain “very expensive”, even compared to battery-powered electric cars, Kentaro Tamura, a Japan-based expert at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), told AFP.

Hydrogen refuelling stations have high installation and upkeep costs, and are rare in comparison to charging spots for electric vehicles, Tamura added.

Hydrogen-powered homes

The results have been better but still modest in housing – the other major area initially earmarked for hydrogen expansion.

A residential fuel cell programme called “Enefarm” was meant to equip 5.3 million Japanese homes by 2030.

It uses gas to create hydrogen that reacts with oxygen from the air to generate electricity and heat water.

READ | Meet the two SA students working on a R90m quest to produce green cooking and jet fuel

But by the end of 2022, just 465 000 systems had been installed, far short of the government’s target of 1.4 million by 2020.

Price is a key factor here too, Tamura said, with installation costs “very high compared with alternative technologies like heat pumps”.

‘Grey’ area 

Energy experts were sceptical of Japan’s hydrogen strategy from the start, because it was launched without creating a reliable supply chain for environmentally friendly “green” hydrogen, produced from renewable energy sources.

Instead, Japan opted for so-called “grey” hydrogen, made using greenhouse gas-emitting coal, petrol or gas, and “blue” hydrogen, which also comes from fossil fuels but with the carbon emissions captured and stored.

In the meantime, countries such as China and some European nations have moved faster on green hydrogen, which remains rare and expensive but is key to decarbonisation, the Japanese Renewable Energy Institute think-tank says.

In March, Tokyo agreed to spend $1.6 billion on an ambitious but controversial venture in Australia to produce liquid hydrogen from lignite coal and export it to Japan.

But critics say the project’s “blue” hydrogen claims are based on carbon capture technology that does not yet exist.

Co-firing controversy

Despite the setbacks, Japan will revise its hydrogen strategy by the end of May, with the Nikkei business daily reporting plans to increase its supply of the fuel to six times the current level by 2040.

It is also promoting another use for hydrogen and its derivative ammonia: burning it alongside gas and coal at existing power stations, to reduce carbon emissions.

READ | Anglo American partners with Sweden’s H2 Green Steel to advance low-carbon steelmaking

An official from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry told AFP that ammonia co-firing is “a realistic means of energy transition that is more CO2-reducing and economically efficient than the early phase-out of coal-fired power and its replacement with renewable energy”.

But climate campaigners question the value of the expensive practice on the path to cleaner energy.

Japan is “the only G7 member” pushing for co-firing, Greenpeace’s Hirotaka Koike said, describing it as a “national policy to keep the ‘sunset’ industry (of thermal power stations) alive.”

Related Posts

The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) logo  at the entrance to its headquarters in Moscow, in December 2023. (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

Russian loses appeal against Olympic ban because of its Ukraine invasion

The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) logo at the entrance to its headquarters in Moscow, in December 2023. (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP) The Court of…

Firetrucks are parked next to the residential block ravaged by a huge fire that killed at least four people, in Valenci. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

Four dead, 19 missing as fire guts polyurethane-clad Spanish apartment block

Firetrucks are parked next to the residential block ravaged by a huge fire that killed at least four people, in Valenci. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN /…

A handout picture released by the National Crime Agency (NCA) on 22 February 2024 shows packages of cocaine seized at the harbour of Southampton, southern England, announced the Organised Crime Agency (NCA). On 8 February 2024, British police made a record seizure of 5.7 tonnes of cocaine in a container in the port of Southampton. The cocaine, with a street value of more than £450 million according to UK market prices, was concealed in a cargo of bananas from South America. NCA investigators believe that the final destination of the goods was the German port of Hamburg.

UK authorities seize ‘biggest ever’ cocaine shipment worth £450m

A handout picture released by the National Crime Agency (NCA) on 22 February 2024 shows packages of cocaine seized at the harbour of Southampton, southern England,…

Bobi, in February 2023, in front of his birth place at his home in the village of Conqueiros in Leiria. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

Guinness World Records yanks Bobi’s title as world’s oldest dog

Bobi, in February 2023, in front of his birth place at his home in the village of Conqueiros in Leiria. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA…

US President Joe Biden at an event in Culver City, California, on 21 February 2024. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

‘Crazy SOB’: Joe Biden is calling Vladimir Putin names to look like a cowboy, Kremlin says

US President Joe Biden at an event in Culver City, California, on 21 February 2024. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) Joe Biden is trying to…

The collapsed section of the Lixinsha bridge over a waterway in Guangzhou, in southern China's Guangdong province on 22 February. A cargo ship struck the bridge, causing cars to plummet into the water.  (Photo by CNS / AFP)

Two killed after ship hits bridge near China’s Guangzhou, plunging cars in the water

The collapsed section of the Lixinsha bridge over a waterway in Guangzhou, in southern China’s Guangdong province on 22 February. A cargo ship struck the bridge,…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *