Japan, a country heavily dependent on fossil fuel imports, is betting big on hydrogen in industry, power generation, vehicles, and shipping as it looks to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The country’s new green strategy relies on hydrogen to cut the dependence on fossil fuels.
Hydrogen has gained a massive amount of traction and hype in recent months as governments, international organizations, and oil and gas supermajors say that it could be the key to helping the decarbonization of emission-intensive industries in the energy transition.
Japan relies heavily on imported crude oil, natural gas, and coal, so its ambition to lessen the 90-percent dependence on fossil fuels was widely expected in the net-zero plans. Japan, however, unlike other major economies, cannot rely too much on solar or wind power because of the limited surface on which it can position solar and wind power farms.
So Japan is turning to hydrogen with support for the industry and soon-to-be-unveiled possible targets for how much fossil fuels hydrogen could displace over the next 30 years.
The hydrogen bet is a huge gamble for Japan, considering the fact that hydrogen technologies—including electrolysis—will need a lot of investment to become easily scalable and, more importantly, cost-efficient.
But if Japan succeeds in gradually shifting its heavily dependent fossil-fuel-powered economy toward low-carbon sources, including a large share of hydrogen, it could show the world that a hydrogen economy could be achieved.
“The real game-changer here is that if there is a breakthrough in Japan and the entire value chain is figured out to service the Japanese market, I think there will be rapid adoption” of hydrogen around the world, David Crane, former CEO at US firm NRG Energy, who now sits on the board of Japan’s largest power generation company JERA Co, told The Wall Street Journal.
Japan’s Big Hydrogen Plans
Japan unveiled in December 2020 its ‘Green Growth Strategy’ to support its 2050 net-zero goal. The strategy includes efforts to “promote the development of technologies for Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) and carbon recycling, as well as explore the exciting potential of hydrogen and ammonia as alternative fuels for power generation” to decarbonize the electricity generation sector.
Japan will continue to use nuclear power, but will aim to reduce its share in the mix and boost safety measures after the Fukushima disaster turned around the Japanese energy strategies and changed the public perception of a safe power source a decade ago.
Hydrogen and ammonia are expected to account for around 10 percent of Japan’s decarbonized electric power generation, alongside up to 60 percent renewables, and around 30 percent nuclear power plus thermal power generation combined with CCUS, according to the strategy.
In its push to create “a smart decarbonized society,” Japan will also promote “electrification and hydrogeneration in sectors that are highly dependent on fossil fuels such as transportation and the consumer economy,” it says.
The country is expected to unveil this month a roadmap on how much that bet on hydrogen could cost.
Government Support Will Be Necessary
Meanwhile, Japan has pledged up to US$3.4 billion (370 billion Japanese yen) to support research and development of hydrogen technology in the next decade. The support for hydrogen is part of a wider US$18 billion (2 trillion yen) funding for green energy under a newly-established Green Innovation Fund.
Japan is also expected to include a significant increase in the number of its hydrogen refueling stations for fuel-cell vehicles in the strategy. The country, which currently has 160 such stations, plans to have 1,000 hydrogen refueling stations by 2030, Nikkei Asia reported last month.
Still, hydrogen when used for power generation is very expensive at present. Critics of the Japanese strategy for using ammonia in co-generation at coal plants, as JERA will pilot, say that this would only “lengthen the lifeline of coal power in Japan,” Greenpeace noted earlier this year.
“It is experimental, in its technological infancy and nothing but expensive greenwash,” Greenpeace said.
Japan Is Not The Only Major Economy Betting On Hydrogen
It’s not only Japan that seeks to achieve greater decarbonization by using hydrogen-technology solutions. Germany said last month it would fund 62 large-scale hydrogen projects with as much as US$10 billion in federal and state funds as it aims to become the world’s leader in hydrogen technologies.
Germany will provide US$9.72 billion (8 billion euro) to the 62 projects it has selected to reduce emissions in the transportation, steelmaking, and chemicals sectors.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) also says that hydrogen will play a key role in a net-zero path. In the notorious report suggesting no new oil and gas investment is needed ever again in a net-zero pathway, the IEA envisages that by 2045, “the vast majority of cars on the roads will be running on electricity or fuel cells, planes will be relying largely on advanced biofuels and synthetic fuels, and hundreds of industrial plants will be using carbon capture or hydrogen around the world.”
The IEA’s vision includes hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels filling the gaps where electricity cannot easily or economically replace fossil fuels and where limited sustainable bioenergy supplies cannot cope with demand. These sectors are shipping, aviation fuel, and the steel and chemicals industries.
Yet, the IEA itself admits that “Net-zero by 2050 requires huge leaps in clean energy innovation,” including in hydrogen electrolyzers and systems to move hydrogen around and between ports and industrial zones.
It is quite clear that a hydrogen economy would need a lot of innovation and even more support and funding from governments. Japan’s support for hydrogen is a start, but a lot more would be needed to make hydrogen a viable, cost-efficient, low-carbon energy solution.