Why are environmental costs often postponed

Early starter with flaw

The "Tokyo Big Sight" exhibition center is to serve as the media center for the Olympic Games postponed to 2021. (Photo: Masato Ohta / Wikimedia Commons)

Under normal circumstances, 2020 would be an Olympic year. The Summer Games would begin on July 24th and the Paralympics on August 25th. The world would be a guest in Japan - around two million visitors live, many millions more on screen.

According to the plans of the Japanese government, they should not only admire top sporting performances there, but also how the country relied on hydrogen in the post-Fukushima era (H.2) puts.

The Olympic flame in the stadium was to burn with hydrogen, the apartments in the Olympic village were to be heated with fuel cells, and athletes, guests and officials were to drive from A to B in hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai. Large-scale use of Toyota's Sora fuel cell bus was also planned within Tokyo during the Games.

But 2020 is not a normal year. The corona pandemic has made Olympic events impossible. In the case of the Summer Games, however, the following applies: postponed, not canceled. The sports event, and with it the big hydrogen showcase, is now scheduled to start in July 2021.

Until then, Japan is unlikely to steal the show - because no other country is introducing H2-Technologies so advanced.

Technologies for the world market

At the end of 2017, Japan became the first country in the world to publish a comprehensive hydrogen strategy. The plan, which extends until 2050 and in which the private sector in the form of auto and technology groups also participates, is ambitious: The Asian industrial nation has set itself the goal of global technology and market leadership and wants to be the first to achieve a hydrogen-based society.

H2 as the "new oil", as the main energy carrier of the future - with this change, Japan, which covers more than 90 percent of its primary energy needs with imported fossil fuels, wants the CO2-Reduce emissions, increase energy security and self-sufficiency, and serve the domestic industry.

A large market in Japan itself is to emerge by 2030, as well as international supply chains for hydrogen. In the long term, a global growth industry is to be created based on Japanese technology.

The goals for 2030 are: 5.3 million fuel cells in Japanese homes, which is one tenth of households, and 800,000 fuel cell cars, for which 900 filling stations are available. According to the plan, 1,200 buses will run on hydrogen in ten years, as well as 10,000 forklifts and an undefined number of trucks and smaller ships.

But heating and vehicles are by no means the only areas of application that the Tokyo government is targeting. Hydrogen power plants should serve as a reserve and to stabilize the grid when the share of renewable energies in the electricity supply increases.

By 2030, around 1,000 megawatts of electricity generation capacity from H2 being constructed. In the more distant future, Japan also plans to use hydrogen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in industry.

Drastic fall in prices expected

The government sees the most important factor in making hydrogen a success story in the price. Because the energy source is - still - very expensive: At the moment, a kilogram at Japanese petrol stations costs the equivalent of around nine euros, very much like in this country.

Japan is aiming for a price of no more than three euros in 2030, after which it should drop further to 1.80 euros. In terms of price, hydrogen should be able to compete with fossil fuels - whereby it is assumed that their price rises when environmental costs are taken into account.

The cost of hydrogen production has already fallen significantly in recent years, and it is generally expected that the price will continue to fall dramatically as technologies are upscaled. According to an analysis by the London-based market research company Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), supportive policies, large-scale investments, for example to build the necessary infrastructure, and subsidies in the billions are necessary.

But even these prerequisites, all of which Japan wants to create, are no guarantee that hydrogen will prevail: "CO2-Prices and emissions policy will continue to be essential, especially where coal and gas are very cheap, "said BNEF's Hydrogen Economy Outlook published at the end of March.

The authors trust hydrogen to become the fuel for the clean economy of the future. To do this, however, it has to be "green", i.e. made with renewable energies.

H2 from coal with CCS

But that's the biggest horse in Japan's hydrogen strategy: the vast majority of H2, which is used in the land of the rising sun, is "gray", ie obtained with the help of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. And it will probably stay that way for a long time to come.

The plan does provide for the use of Power-to-X technologies to make use of excess green electricity. For this purpose, for example, the world's largest water electrolyser went into operation in Namie in the Fukushima province in March. According to the operator Asahi Kasei, the ten-megawatt system can produce 1,200 standard cubic meters of green hydrogen per hour from solar or wind power.

However, the strategy only expects this to be competitive with imported gray hydrogen - which is to come on a large scale from the coal country Australia, for example - for the "distant future". Especially since the renewable capacities in Japan are far too small to supply the hydrogen-based society.

To still CO2-to be able to become neutral, instead of a green H2 especially the CO2-Deposition and storage, or CCS for short, are used. To this end, Japan operates a large test facility on the island of Hokkaido, for example, which controls the CO2 from the exhaust gases of an oil refinery several thousand meters below the sea floor.

According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, 300,000 tons of CO were produced there between 2016 and 20192 pressed. The storage capacities at this and other locations are estimated to be very high. Although seismologists warn, research and development should be pushed ahead.

Green hydrogen with a cost disadvantage

If you combine the CCS process, which is controversial for ecological reasons, with fossil energy sources to produce H.2-Manufacturing, the hydrogen becomes "blue" - a process that costs even more than electrolysis, which uses electricity to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen.

For us, blue hydrogen is at best a transition technology. The federal government is striving for a supply of green H in the medium to long term2 at.

However, Germany has significantly better prerequisites for this than Japan, on the one hand because of the greater potential of renewable energies, on the other hand because of better geological conditions for hydrogen storage. The BNEF study estimates that the cost of green hydrogen in Japan will be 50 to 70 percent higher.

On the other hand, Japan has a three-year lead over Germany with its hydrogen strategy - and is also way ahead in some areas of application: The Toyota Mirai, on the market since 2014, was the first hydrogen car to be mass-produced, and it still is today best-selling.

The Japanese carmaker only built the ten thousandth Mirai in 2019, but wants to increase production capacity for the second generation, which will be launched in the fall, to 30,000 per year. The only serious competitor is the Hyundai Nexo from South Korea.

German manufacturers, however, have not yet had a single H2-Car produced in large quantities. Only Mercedes-Benz was on the market with the SUV model GLC F-Cell, but only for leasing. In April it became known that the carmaker would stop production and would not develop a successor model.

Not in front everywhere

A similar picture emerges with hydrogen heating for private homes. They have been on the market in Japan since 2009; ten years later, 300,000 systems were installed. A whopping government subsidy of almost half the price helped the market ramp up. With the falling product prices, the subsidy was gradually reduced and is no longer necessary today.

In Germany, however, the fuel cell for heating is still a niche product. There are now several German manufacturers, but they often rely on Japanese technology. At the market leader Viessmann, for example, "Viessmann outside, Panasonic inside" applies: The fuel cell in the "Vitovalor" comes from the Japanese market leader.

According to a comparative study by the Berlin think tank Adelphi, Germany is further ahead with Power-to-X and the use of fuel cells for uninterruptible power supply. The race for global hydrogen market leadership is therefore open.

What can be positive: only the competition incites you to perform at its best. This applies to technological developments just as it does to the Olympic Games.