Climate change: Is ‘blue hydrogen’ Japan’s answer to coal?

Rupert Wingfield – Hayes
BBC News Tokyo

Caption for the image

Looking out at Tokyo Bay from a newly constructed coal-fired power plant

It’s autumn, it’s beautiful. I stand on top of the hill overlooking Tokyo Bay. Takao Siki is a gentle-mannered man in his 70s who stands beside me.

Today, Saiki-San is furious.

In perfect English, he said “It is a complete joke.” “Just ridiculous!”

His distress stems from a massive construction site that blocks our view of the bay. It is now a 1.3-gigawatt, coal-fired power plant.

Rikuro Suzuki, Saiki-San’s friend and colleague says that “I don’t understand why we continue to have to use coal to produce electricity.” The plant itself will release more than seven millions tonnes of carbon dioxide each year!

Suzuki-San is right on the mark. Japan should be reducing its coal use, and not increasing, in a period of high concern over the impact of coal on the environment.

Why is coal being used? Fukushima’s nuclear catastrophe in 2011 is the answer.

Japan got about a third its electricity from nuclear power in 2010. There were also plans for more. All Japan’s existing nuclear power plants were destroyed by the 2011 earthquake. Most remain shut down ten years later – there’s a lot of resistance for their restart.

Japan’s new gas-fired power plants have taken their place and are doing an awful lot of overtime. As Britain recently discovered, natural gas can be expensive.

The Japanese government therefore decided to construct 22 coal-fired power plants, which would run on Australian coal cheaply imported from Australia. It was economically sensible. But it was not sustainable for the environment. Japan faces intense pressure to end its use of coal.

Japan is looking for a way to burn hydrogen and ammonia instead of shutting down its coal-fired power plants.

Professor Tomas Kaberger from Chalmers University, Sweden is an expert in energy policy. He says that “the investment by electric power companies into coal-fired electricity plants would suddenly become worthless without any value to their balance sheets.”

It would cause financial problems for electricity companies, banks, and pension funds. That is Japan’s challenge.

Plants can easily be converted into hydrogen or ammonia. Neither of these produce carbon dioxide. It seems that this is a viable solution.

Japan’s government is ambitious beyond that. The Japanese government wants to become the first world “hydrogen economy”.

Toyota is here to help.

It is another sunny day in Tokyo and I am at the shiny new hydrogen filling stations. A sleek, new Toyota Mirai is standing on the forecourt. It is about as large as a Lexus, and a luxurious car.

After slipping into my leather-clad vehicle, I press the “start” button to glide onto the streets. It is extremely quiet, smooth and silent. The only thing that dribbles onto the street behind me is water.

Toyota’s first electric vehicle with zero emissions is the Mirai. The Mirai has a smaller battery than other electric cars. It has a fuel tank under its bonnet and hydrogen tanks underneath the rear seat. In a fuel cell, hydrogen is mixed with oxygen to create water. The reaction releases energy which can be used by the electric motors. The same technology is used for powering the Apollo spacecraft and the Moon missions.

Many people find this technology a strange choice. This technology is more complicated and expensive than batteries. Elon Musk called hydrogen cars stupid.

Hisashi Nakai (head of Toyota’s public relations division) says that this is false. Hisashi Nakai says that the vision of Toyota for fuel cell technology goes beyond cars.

I know that people will have differing opinions but what is important is achieving carbon neutrality. Fuel cell technology is a powerful tool that can help us make the best of it. Hydrogen is a valuable and powerful energy that we strongly support.

Nakaisan reports that Toyota sees hydrogen fuel cells everywhere. This includes homes, offices, factories and cars. It wants to lead this new hydrogen society.

The final and most significant question is now. From where is hydrogen going to be produced to power Japan’s zero-carbon society?

It is called “blue hydrogen”.

You can make hydrogen using water and renewable energy to create “green hydrogen”. Problem is, green hydrogen is very costly.

Today, hydrogen is made mostly from coal or natural gas. It is inexpensive, but produces lots of greenhouse gasses. You can call this “blue hydrogen” if the greenhouse gases are captured and then buried in the ground.

Japan has already said that this is what it will do.

Japan and Australia launched a joint venture in Victoria, earlier this year. The project aims to transform lignite or brown coal into hydrogen. This hydrogen is then heated to minus 253C and piped onto a special-built ship, which transports it to Japan.

What will happen to greenhouse gases that are produced on the site? They are currently emitted directly into the atmosphere. Japan and Australia promise that they will capture the greenhouse gases produced at Latrobe Valley and then inject them into the ocean floor.

These plans are shocking for climate activists. The technology used to store and capture greenhouse gases has not been proven and will lead Japan to continue digging for brown coal for many decades.

Prof Kaberger says that the greatest hole in the Plan is the economic.

It is technically possible, but will be costly,” he said. The cost of using fossil fuels with carbon storage and carbon capture will be higher than using fossil fuels by themselves. In many places, renewable electricity is cheaper than fossil fuels.

Professor Kaberger says that Japan’s government chose to use blue hydrogen in the era of renewables ten years ago. They are currently locked into an arrangement that doesn’t make any sense.

He says that Japanese companies require cheap electricity in order to remain competitive. They also need reliable electricity to make their products internationally accepted. This means that they will need renewable electricity. This development must be completed by the end of this year to avoid any economic harm for Japan.

Construction continues at the Tokyo Bay edge. It is expected that the giant, new coal-fired electric power station will become operational in 2023. It will be in operation for at most 40 years.

Hikari Matsumoto (21 years old activist) says, “I’m ashamed of Japan.”

She says, “I am so frustrated.” Japanese youth are more peaceful than in other countries. “Our generation must voice their opinion.”


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