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Power of choice: The future of hydrogen-powered cars in Japan

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By Julian Ryall for The ACCJ Journal

Three of Japan’s top car manufacturers made a big announcement in early March 2018. In a move intended to keep the domestic auto industry ahead of German and Chinese rivals, the trio is unifying efforts to sharply increase the number of hydrogen refueling stations across the country, setting the agenda for hydrogen as the fuel of the future.

Toyota Motor Corporation, Nissan Motor Company, Ltd., and Honda Motor Company, Ltd. have teamed up in a joint venture with a number of inter­national gas and energy companies—including France’s Air Liquide SA—to construct 80 new hydrogen stations in the next four years, supple­menting the 101 refueling facilities that are already in operation.

HIGH HOPES

The new venture, named Japan H2 Mobility, comes into being as the world’s leading economies draw up increasingly stringent environmental regulations. These rules are pushing forward development of a new generation of vehicles that are friendly to the planet. In Japan, that drive has focused on fuel cells that combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce an electrochemical reaction that can power vehicles or homes. But wider acceptance of hydrogen-powered cars faces a hurdle: the shortage of refueling stations. Japan H2 Mobility aims to solve this—and the auto sector has high hopes for the initiative.

“Hydrogen is a particularly promising alternative fuel since it can be produced using a wide variety of primary energy sources or sewage sludge, and can be generated from water by using solar and wind power,” said Jean-Yves Jault, a spokesperson for Toyota. “When compressed, it has a higher energy density than batteries and is easier to store and transport. In addition to its potential as a fuel for home and auto­motive use, hydrogen could also be used in a wide range of applications, including large-scale power generation.

“Fuel-cell vehicles contribute to the diversification of automobile fuels, emit no CO2 or environmentally harmful substances during operation and offer the convenience of gasoline-powered cars, with a charging time of about three minutes,” he told The ACCJ Journal.

Toyota has been developing fuel cell vehicles in-house since 1992, and in 2002 began leasing the fuel-cell Toyota FCHV SUV on a limited basis in Japan and the United States.

It has taken a long time to develop sufficient quality in fuel cell vehicles and to achieve a price point that buyers can accept, Jault said. The refueling infra­­structure has been another hurdle, although current vehicles can travel up to 595 kilometers (370 miles) without refueling.

More broadly, Japan has been at the forefront of the promo­tion of hydrogen technology, due both to the desire to reduce harmful emissions and to help ensure energy security.

“At Toyota, we take environmental challenges—such as global warming, air pollution, and limited natural resources and energies—very seriously,” said Jault. “In order to solve these issues, we believe electrification of vehicles is indispensable.”

Pointing out that fuel-cell vehicles are also electric vehicles, he added, “Toyota has competitive expertise and know-how in the core technologies for electrification, thanks to its history of developing and selling electri­fied vehicles such as hybrids.” A key difference between these vehicles and those powered by better-known battery tech­nology is that their electricity is produced onboard by the fuel cells, rather than being charged from the grid.

Although market share for hydrogen-powered cars is likely to remain low for some time to come, the European Climate Foundation predicts a surge by mid-century. Its February 2018 report Fuelling Europe’s Future forecasts a 10-percent share by 2035, 19 percent by 2040, and 26 percent by 2050.

LONG JOURNEY

George Hansen, who heads the program for fuel-cell vehicles at General Motors Japan Limited (GM), said his firm began tinkering with the first fuel-cell vehicle fully 50 years ago.

“The vehicle was very scientific and looked more like a spaceship than a car. The true pull for the technology really began in the late 1990s, as we made advances, and GM has been very committed to the use of fuel cells since 2000. But it has only been much more recently—say around 2015—that the movement began to produce vehicles in significant volume.

“And, as with any driving tech­nology, with time and improvements the cost will come down to the point that it makes complete sense to drive a fuel-cell vehicle,” he said.

GM has merged its fuel-cell project with that of Honda, both in Michigan and Tochigi Prefecture, and the two companies have established a joint venture to begin manufacturing fuel-cell systems in the United States around 2020.

“The governments in both Japan and the United States are very supportive of work to advance the technology—although there are differences in how that support is being implemented,” Hansen said. “In Japan, the work is more centrally driven, with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry getting all industries with a stake in hydrogen energy—including autos, appliances, and households—together with energy companies to create a grand hydrogen fuel-cell plan.

“The United States is more diverse,” he continued. “There has been support from the federal govern­ment and the Department of Energy for many years, but there have been pockets where the push has been strongest, such as in California, which has been building hydrogen stations.”

UNCERTAINTY

Yet not everyone is convinced that the revolution in hydrogen-powered vehicles is just around the corner, or that it is the correct road to take in any case.

“There are three major challenges with fuel-cell vehicles,” said Dr. Ali Izadi, head of Intelligent Mobility for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, as he ticked them off on his fingers.

“Fuel-cell cars are very expensive. For example, the retail price—without subsidies—of a Toyota Mirai is ¥6.7 million ($62,680), which puts it at about three times the price of other cars in the same class.

“While proponents argue that mass production would bring down the vehicle cost, unlike electric vehicles, which rely on lithium-ion batteries, fuel cells do not have existing high-volume applications that can help scale up demand and foster supply-chain expansion,” he said. “Electric vehicles benefit from decades of prior investment in lithium-ion battery manufacturing to serve consumer electronics appli­cations, but fuel-cell vehicles need an onboard hydrogen tank, pumps, and compressors that are more complex than battery electric vehicles, hence they suffer higher vehicle manufacturing costs.”

Secondly, the cost of deploying hydrogen refueling infra­struc­ture is “exorbitant,” said Izadi. The cost of a single station is about ¥400 million, significantly higher than the ¥100 million required to build a conventional gas station. Hydrogen fuel is also more expensive than gasoline or electricity in terms of the price of fuel consumed per unit mile driven, he added.

Finally, the energy efficiency of fuel-cell vehicles is lower than that of battery electric vehicles, as fuel cells have higher energy losses than batteries. It is also worth pointing out that the dominant approach to making hydrogen is steam methane reformation, which is not a zero-emissions process.

THE ROAD AHEAD

At the start of 2018, there were about 3,400 fuel-cell vehicles on US roads and some 2,300 in use in Japan. Izadi believes that deployments in Japan will increase over the next few years and overtake those in the United States as the government here teams up with Toyota and other developers with an explicit goal to utilize the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games as an opportunity to promote hydrogen and fuel-cell technology.

“Even then, under the most optimistic scenario, we expect there will be only about 25,000 fuel-cell vehicles on Japan’s roads by the end of 2020,” he said. “As of now, there are already more than 160,000 electric vehicles—plug-in hybrids and battery electrics—on Japan’s roads. By the end of 2020, we expect that number to increase to more than half a million electric vehicles.”

Undeterred, Hansen said there is space in the sector for both systems to thrive.

“There has been a lot of discussion of this topic and the sense is that both systems have their distinct advantages. We see batteries as being best suited for smaller cars that go on shorter journeys, perhaps in cities, and carry smaller loads. But for bigger loads and longer ranges, fuel cells are more appropriate. I think that both can coexist and that both are needed.”

Jault agrees and said Toyota intends to push forward with its studies into production and sales “from a long-term perspective” that takes into account the development of hydrogen refueling infrastructure, national energy policies, vehicle purchase subsidies, environ­mental regulations, and consumer needs.

“We have said in the past that we would increase production volume of our hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, the Mirai, from about 3,000 vehicles per year until 2020 to about 30,000 vehicles per year in the 2020s,” he said. “Hydrogen is already widely produced and used in industry. For example, much hydrogen is used in the production of ammonia. Also, hydrogen is produced when petroleum is purified at oil factories to make gasoline.

“Hydrogen stations themselves will not be profitable in the short term, but we need a long-term view until hydrogen is widely used as a fuel for automobiles,” he said. “It took three generations for the Prius to become popular. We think the usage of hydrogen will grow gradually.”

Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© The ACCJ Journal

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

21 Comments
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Great article introducing arguments from all sides. Dangerous to place all of humanity's eggs into one electric basket, I reckon. As I have said previously a Mirai would be near the top of my list, if only I could afford it. Let's hope the Takarakuji tickets hit gold next week.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Maybe a better use of hydrogen would be to generate power from hydrogen produced from renewable energy when there's excess like overnight wind other Japan really needs to up its use of renewable energy like what is happening in the UK.

Yesterday more than 25% of power was came from solar.

Check this out

http://gridwatch.co.uk

0 ( +0 / -0 )

emit no CO2 or environmentally harmful substances during operation

They emit water vapor which is a more potent green house gas than CO2.

At the start of 2018, there were about 3,400 fuel-cell vehicles on US roads and some 2,300 in use in Japan.

to construct 80 new hydrogen stations in the next four years, supple­menting the 101 refueling facilities that are already in operation.

So, currently there is one refueling station for every 23 hydrogen vehicles.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Water vapor can be turned into liquid

0 ( +1 / -1 )

There is this too buried in the article above: "It is also worth pointing out that the dominant approach to making hydrogen is steam methane reformation, which is not a zero-emissions process."

2 ( +2 / -0 )

As an alternative to retrofitting in to a heavy steel vehicle designed for an ICE have a look at this www.riversimple.com

Steam reformation is the old way to produce hydrogen but newer and better ways are being developed. Also most renewable energy sources continue to produce power at times when it is not needed, so the simple and clean electrolysis provides a store of energy either to produce electricity later or sold as fuel.

Battery electric transport has a hidden Achilles heel, if we replace all the vehicles currently running with ICE with Lithium battery vehicles, the grid in every country will collapse. The power requirement are many times what they can supply and that grid power will probably not come from renewable sources. Also Lithium is a finite resource, has serious environmental impacts in production and will sky rocket in price as the demand increases exponentially

We need both but transport is better served by hydrogen..

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Japan really needs to invest in a smart grid system, now!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I wondered why it was a light information providing article, then I saw it was written for the American Chamber of Commerce-Japan members.

1) Did not touch on the issue of larger number of moving engine components needed for hydrogen engines vs electric motors

2) Did not touch on the issue of decreasing lithium battery price (Morgan Stanley)

3) Hydrogen, as a green energy source, is viable for shipping, rail, and heating, even if hydrogen powered cars don't take off.

4) Usage of hydrogen, keeps energy providing services under the control of government and large corporations.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

I think it is a good idea to keep all options open, but haven't read anything to change my mind that electric engines will be the wave of the future, with hybrids practical in some markets, and maybe for over the road tractors.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Mai Yenish May 6  10:21 pm JST

I wondered why it was a light information providing article, then I saw it was written for the American Chamber of Commerce-Japan members. 

You don't seem think much of those CoC members, based on what experience?

1) Did not touch on the issue of larger number of moving engine components needed for hydrogen engines vs electric motors

Heard of Fuel Cell technology?

2) Did not touch on the issue of decreasing lithium battery price (Morgan Stanley)

So? Are you referring to that battery factory who happens to make cars? :)

3) Hydrogen, as a green energy source, is viable for shipping, rail, and heating, even if hydrogen powered cars don't take off.

Hydrogen powered will take off.

4) Usage of hydrogen, keeps energy providing services under the control of government and large corporations.

Based on what knowledge?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

cars **

0 ( +0 / -0 )

if we replace all the vehicles currently running with ICE with Lithium battery vehicles, the grid in every country will collapse.

And if we replaced them with hydrogen vehicles, the grid would collapse trying to power all the hydrogen generation facilities.

No matter what type of power is used in vehicles the total amount needed will remain the same. Battery vehicles obviously require a supply of electricity to charge them and the current capacity and grid in virtually every country could not even come close to supplying a complete shift to battery vehicles.

The hydrogen for hydrogen vehicles is almost exclusively generated with the use of electricity. So, hydrogen vehicle run into the same capacity and grid issues as battery vehicles.

If the grid is going to supply the power for transportation, through either charging battery vehicles or generating hydrogen, it will require a massive increase in generating capacity and an massive upgrade to the grid. Although hydrogen does have the advantage over batteries in this situation because the hydrogen generation will be at a small number of generation facilities as opposed to every home being a battery charging station, meaning the entire grid wouldn't need as much upgrading.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The current grid demand is 12-27%. majority of power companies use less than 20%.

Plenty of transmission capacity to greatly increase the amount of renewable energy.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Personal experience of one person's ev vehicle usage in today's markeplace, from a thread entitled 'Tesla and Lithium', pointing out some little considerations for driving your next electric vehicle. This is one reason why hydrogen attracts me more. 

(Interesting to see the 'all-or-nothing' comment at the end. Persumably with hydrogen you can easily add small top-up quantities such as ten litres when necessary.)  

https://www.pprune.org/jet-blast/577278-tesla-lithium-52.html

"The disparity between all the competing charging networks is barking mad. I just never, ever bother to use any of them, as you have to pay an annual fee for each different system, and the cost of just joining several systems in order to get an access card would be more than any saving I'd make by running on electric power. Instead I've decided that a pure EV is just impractical for me for the foreseeable future, and I'll stick with a plug-in hybrid that I can charge at home, and in most places where we are likely to go on holiday (we're away for a few days later this month and the hotel has three free charge points, that can be used by any type of EV of PHEV). What's needed is the sort of standardisation we have at filling stations, where every unleaded pump fits every car that uses unleaded fuel, every diesel pump fits every car that uses diesel fuel, etc, rather than the plethora of different systems, most of which require an annual fee for an access card, plus a fixed fee to connect to the charger, plus, in some cases, a fee per kWh. Many charge a £1.20 connection charge, irrespective of how much electricity you actually use, or how long you stay connected, which means that it's pointless to use them for a quick boost charge - if you're driving a PHEV you're better off burning petrol. "

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Mike O'Brien

No matter what type of power is used in vehicles the total amount needed will remain the same. Battery vehicles obviously require a supply of electricity to charge them and the current capacity and grid in virtually every country could not even come close to supplying a complete shift to battery vehicles.

To an extent I agree with you but you forget the existing and growing capacity that currently goes to waste in renewables when there is a miss match between generation and demand.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This article for grid and transmission line capacities

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201801280022.html

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Whenever I read of Hydrogen powered cars, I suddenly think about mini-Hindenburg's exploding to the backing music of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture. Of course, I've read that this scenario won't happen... but the image still sticks.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I have a more pessimistic view on hydrogen cars-by the time they are generally available, efficient and safe, the market will be saturated the self-driving (to various extents) EV cars.

This project reminds me of the company I used to work for with the similar attitude 'we know the project has low chances to succeed, but its our idea,so we keep investing into it and blah-blah'..(didn't end well).

In EV case,the energy problem can be somewhat resolved by solutions similar to Tesla's Powerwall -battery unit charged from solar tiles, that allows to store energy and use it both for home and EV charging.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Shikisai, hydrogen/electric fuel-cell powered vehicles will surely incorporate self-driving technology to the same extent as other methods of propulsion.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

In EV case,the energy problem can be somewhat resolved by solutions similar to Tesla's Powerwall -battery unit charged from solar tiles, that allows to store energy and use it both for home and EV charging.

somewhat resolved.... speaks for itself :)

Within a decade Tesla will be history.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The current grid demand is 12-27%. majority of power companies use less than 20%.

Plenty of transmission capacity to greatly increase the amount of renewable energy.

This article for grid and transmission line capacities

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201801280022.html

Actually no. If you read the article more closely you'll find they are talking strictly about the high-voltage core electric power lines, such as 500,000 volts or 275,000 volts.

Most all EVs will be plugging into a local low voltage line which are all connected to an electrical substation which becomes a bottle neck when all the electrical power is loaded resulting to burst of a local substation shutting down the neighborhood electric supply.

Take a look at all the gateways they placed.

http://www.chuden.co.jp/resource/kids/shurui_pho_01.gif

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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