Japan Tried to Build a Hydrogen Society. It Backfired Spectacularly.

hydrogen molecule
Japan Tried—and Failed—to Build a Hydrogen SocietyAndriy Onufriyenko - Getty Images

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  • Japan has long been a leader in hydrogen energy and fuel cell technology.

  • Companies like Toyota plan to build entire cities entirely powered by hydrogen.

  • A new report from an environmental think-tank argues that Japan is investing in the wrong applications for hydrogen technology and the determine of its decarbonization efforts.

In the past couple decades, scientists and engineers have come up with lots of ways to rapidly decarbonize the planet—but some ideas are better than others.

Take, for instance, hydrogen. Thanks to the discovery of electrolysis, hydrogen’s been a known source of energy for centuries, but Japan became a frontrunner in that energy source in recent years because of its status as a resource-poor country. A steady supply of renewable energy isn’t just an important climate initiative, it’s a matter of national security.

However, Japan may have taken things a bit too far.

In 2017, the country became the first in the world to adopt a national hydrogen plan, and companies like Toyota have committed to constructing futuristic cities powered by the technology. In 2021 alone, Japan spent around $800 million on investments into hydrogen power and fuel cells.

But according to the Renewable Energy Institute (REI), a Japanese environmental think tank, this push to use hydrogen in every conceivable energy sector is actually doing more harm than good.

From the report:

“The 2017 Basic Hydrogen Strategy is misguided, both in terms of what hydrogen is used for and how it is produced. Moreover, it promotes the use of gray hydrogen, which does not contribute to emission reductions.”

Gray hydrogen is the most common form of hydrogen production, which uses the greenhouse gas methane.

The 20-page report doesn’t argue for hydrogen’s complete removal from the energy mix. In fact, REI argues that hydrogen is vital for industries where decarbonization is particularly tricky (think: aviation, shipping, and steelmaking). However, to use hydrogen in place of electrification via other renewable sources is a mistake, REI says.

The report continues:

“The scope of applications where energy demands can be met with electrification has grown, and the range of areas that need hydrogen have decreased. This has led to a common understanding worldwide that hydrogen should be limited to applications where it would be difficult to achieve decarbonization with other methods.”

The report identifies “bad idea applications” that have already gobbled up 70 percent of the country's hydrogen budget—things like hydrogen cars, refueling stations, and residential power systems. Adoption of this hydrogen technology has lagged far behind Japan’s estimations, and the report argues that fuel cell cars will hit just 1/40th of their sales target by 2030. This lopsided interest in hydrogen could also be harming the country’s solar panel adoption as the report notes Japan lags behind some European peers when it comes to building out its solar infrastructure.

REI punctures the often-reported facts about Japan’s utopian-esque hydrogen society. It’s unlikely the report will put a stop to megaprojects like Toyota’s “Woven City,” but those cities might not live in the green-energy future that they imagined.

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