Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Japanese hydrogen model might work in Washington state


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The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were billed as the “Hydrogen Olympics” Then along came COVID and sporting events worldwide were put on hold. The summer games were delayed until 2021. Postponing the games cost Japan billions and thwarted its efforts to showcase the Japanese “Green Growth” strategies.

Japan, like the U.S., plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050. While countries like China are betting on lithium batteries, Japan’s centerpiece is hydrogen. As Japanese researchers develop new technology using renewable electricity generated by wind, solar, and hydropower to produce hydrogen, those projects could work in Washington as well.

In the last 18 months, COVID changed everything. It’s not just the disease itself—it’s the supply chain disruption, writes Tess Joosse, an editorial fellow at Scientific American. When the Olympics opened late last month, only one building in the Olympic Village was actually hydrogen powered.

COVID hasn’t dampened Japan’s enthusiasm for hydrogen development, Keith Wipke, a hydrogen and fuel cell researcher at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tells Scientific American. “I certainly have seen no indications that Japan or any other country has backed off on their quite ambitious aspirations for hydrogen.”

Japan built the world’s third-largest economy on an industrial base powered by imported oil, gas, and coal. However, its leader concluded Japan can’t achieve its zero emissions goal with renewable sources like solar and wind alone, Wall Street Journal’s Phred Dvorak writes. Japan is betting heavily on hydrogen largely because it emits water, not carbon dioxide.

One key problem is hydrogen isn’t found by itself in nature, which means it must be extracted from compounds such as water or fossil fuels, Dvorak adds. Currently, the most economical way is extracting it from natural gas and coal, but that process also produces carbon dioxide. The long-term goal is to make hydrogen the “green” way, using electricity from renewable-energy sources to break down water—but for now that is more costly.

Japan is working to reduce “green hydrogen production costs” from breaking apart water though electrolysis; however, electrolysis uses lots of electricity. A Japanese consortium started constructing a large scale (10 megawatts) renewable energy-powered hydrogen production unit, the largest of its class in the world. It will take electricity from a large solar farm (20 megawatts) built on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster site.

Hydrogen produced at Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field will also be used to power hydrogen fuel cells in cars, buses, trucks, and possibly airplanes. While the facility is also tied into the electrical grid as backup, it’s designed to use surplus wind and solar electricity.

If this pilot project is successful, it could be applicable in central Washington where hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar produce high volumes of CO2-free electricity. Imagine a series of green hydrogen production facilities in Washington that make liquid hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline and diesel? Hopefully, it could happen.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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