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Toward a Hydrogen-based Society

Tadahiko Abe
Senior Expert

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

1. Attention Turning toward “Hydrogen Society”

These days, hydrogen-based societies are all the rage, to the extent that one might even call 2015 the “Inaugural Year of Hydrogen.” According to the Basic Energy Plan published in 2014 by the Japanese government, hydrogen society is defined as “a society which uses hydrogen for daily living and industrial activities.” In reality, this doesn’t mean that hydrogen would replace other sources of energy, but rather that, by taking advantage of hydrogen’s various characteristics, society would use hydrogen in the larger energy system as a whole.”

National and local governments and private companies are all making tangible progress towards the above vision. At the national level, the 2014 Basic Energy Plan emphasizes hydrogen’s importance and even states clearly that it will play a central role as a secondary energy in Japan’s future. Based on this national policy, in 2014 METI established the Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Strategy Conference and crafted a road map towards founding a hydrogen society. That road map is divided into three phases and takes a long-term view towards its goal: Phase 1 aims to spread the use of fuel cells by the mid-2020s; Phase 2 aims to establish a large-scale hydrogen supply system by 2030; and Phase 3 aims to have a complete CO2-free hydrogen supply system by 2040.

City governments are also getting involved. For example, there are plans to turn Tokyo into a model city of a hydrogen society for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The plan sets quantitative goals for the introduction of hydrogen stations, fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), fuel cell buses, residential fuel cellss, and commercial and industrial fuel cellss. Many other cities are beginning to show movement as well. Private companies are also getting involved, selling FCVs, increasing uptake of residential fuel cellss, and generally blazing a trail for hydrogen and fuel cell use.

2. Pros and Cons of a Hydrogen Society

The reason for the sudden and rapid rise to prominence of the idea of a hydrogen society is that it may be the thread which leads us to a solution for the large energy issues facing Japan and the rest of the world. Hydrogen is, in a way, a limitless resource which can be obtained plentifully from various primary energy sources in regions with low geopolitical risk and used to deal with issues such as the drying up of fossil fuels, energy security, emergency energy sources, and other energy issues, such as using hydrogen fuel cell buses as emergency transportation during a disaster. Hydrogen is also a clean, environmentally friendly energy source which does not emit carbon dioxide upon combustion. Hydrogen can be used as a medium to store, transport, and re-release the power generated by solar and wind, renewable energies which are environmentally friendly but have issues of supply stability. Hydrogen can also be produced and sold in-region, or exported out-of-region, to create a local energy industry and, together with Japan’s leading FCV technology base, increase Japan’s global industrial competitiveness.

While the hopes being heaped upon hydrogen society are great, however, there are also many issues with realizing this dream, and they may prove intractable.

Among these issues is the need for technology that will either not emit carbon dioxide during hydrogen production or absorb the carbon dioxide. Furthermore, hydrogen-related costs must be greatly reduced, both the cost of production and the cost of building distribution infrastructure: it currently takes JPY400-500 million to build one hydrogen pumping station. Finally, addressing psychological unease related to the safety of hydrogen will be unavoidable, as will the need to promote use of hydrogen in society.

3. Looking at Hydrogen Society

In striving for a hydrogen society, it is important to ask how we can use hydrogen, with its various characteristics and unique nature, with both its pros and its cons.

First, because hydrogen is a new type of energy with many faces, it is important not to compare its advantages and disadvantages to other “standalone” energies, but to evaluate it from a wider perspective within the entire energy system, i.e., as a storage battery connected to and storing the power from other renewable power sources.

Second, because the hydrogen network is particularly complex, we must not consider it on a local or conceptual basis only, but rather evaluate it based on quantitative modeling of its relationship with the rest of the system.

Figure: Long-term view needed to realize hydrogen society

20150202Using a long-term view to overcome the "Nightmare Phase" so many big innovations fall prey to

Third, achieving a hydrogen society is a long endeavor and a long-term view is needed when considering the possibilities. The above figure shows the expectations for a hydrogen society along the time axis. At first our hopes wax large, but as we think analytically about the possibility of achieving our goal, we realize there are also large issues to be addressed, and for a time our hopes and dreams may wane. In the end, however, we realize the great value of a hydrogen society and the need to achieve it, and we pick up our bruised hopes, dust them off, and strike out for our goal once again. This is the path that hydrogen will have to walk. In order to make hydrogen society a reality, we must accept as a given that we will pass through these phases and, with a long-term view, think of how we can get through the hard times that lie ahead.

National and municipal governments together with private companies will need a staunch will and all of the wisdom they can muster in order to reach a holistic, quantitative, and long-term evaluation of hydrogen society and give it a forward push.