Japan Pushes Forward With Hydrogen Society Ahead Of Olympics


Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics and plans to use the games to showcase the advantages of “clean hydrogen power” as it strives to build what prime minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe call a hydrogen society. Masuzoe told the Wall Street Journal recently, “The first Tokyo Olympics, 50 years ago, left a bullet train system as a legacy. I want to leave a hydrogen society as a legacy for the next Tokyo Olympics.”

Hydrogen society will require new ocean tankers

By the time the Summer Games kick off, Japanese officials hope to have thousands of hydrogen powered cars on the road, 100 fuel cell buses in operation, and a network of fueling stations supplying the Olympic Village. Industrial-size fuel cells will power buildings like the media center and the dormitories for the athletes.

There is only one problem. Japan has no domestic source of supply for hydrogen gas. A consortium of companies including Kawasaki Heavy Industries is planning to get it from low-grade coal found in Australia and then ship it across the Pacific in special tanker ships built by Kawasaki. Japan is also exploring the idea of using hydroelectric power in Canada or possibly Russia. That, too, would have to be transported in ships. It should be noted that none of these ships exist yet and 2020 is getting closer every day.

So, let’s see if we have this straight. Japan is going to run its Olympics on hydrogen that it gets from fossil fuels which it ships to Tokyo in cargo ships. Keep in mind that ocean going ships spew more carbon emissions each voyage than a couple million gasoline powered cars do in a year. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, no one in Japan has bothered to study what happened in Vancouver when it hosted the Olympics recently. It, too, placed a huge bet on hydrogen power and purchased a fleet of fuel cell buses for the games. But it had to truck in hydrogen from Toronto, across the plains and over the Rockies, in diesel-powered tanker trucks. After the games, the buses went into storage because they cost too much to operate. Some were sold for scrap; others were retrofitted with diesel engines. Can you say “disaster,” boys and girls?

Japan was shocked by the Fukushima disaster a few years ago. It had built its entire economy on cheap electricity from nuclear power plants and suddenly that whole idea was no longer valid. It had to scramble to keep its economy from collapsing and thought using hydrogen would be a good idea. (Plan B was re-starting is dormant coal fired generating plants and exporting that technology to other countries.)

Hydrogen is marketed as clean energy but it is anything but. So long as it is derived from fossil fuels and shipped long distances, the whole notion of a sustainable hydrogen economy is a fraud. Once the world figures out how to  make hydrogen gas and distribute it using clean, renewable power (from the sun, perhaps!), it may be a viable energy source. Until then, it is dream — some might say a nightmare. If Japan really wants to make a contribution to society, it should stop trying to substitute one fossil fuel for another and take a more active role in unlocking  the limitless potential of renewable solar energy

If there is anything about this that Abe-san and Masuzoe-san do not understand, they are welcome to contact me. I will explain it to them in 5 minutes or less in words even a politician can understand.

Related: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars — #FAIL, In Depth

Photo credit: Kawasaki Heavy Industries

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • James Rowland

    There is of course a major problem with Yoichi Masuzoe’s analogy: The bullet trains were better than all rival solutions that were likely to appear, while hydrogen is grossly inferior to a rival solution that has already appeared.

    • Steve Hanley

      Yup. Pretty much sums it up – unless the hydrogen comes from renewable sources. Don’t want to risk getting Ben mad at you, James. ; – )

      • James Rowland

        Mad is fine, though I would prefer re-educated. 😉

        • Ben Helton

          Yea, try to re-educate $1 billion + in R&D development from the worlds largest manufacturer. I’m sure you know more than them and their hundreds of engineers / scientists that have been attacking this problem for 2 decades.

          • James Rowland

            R&D spending has never been known to alter the laws of physics. Sunk Costs Fallacy has often been known to cloud judgement, especially when people have spent whole careers in pursuit of something.

            Got any more poor arguments you want to try out here, Mr Sarcasm? I guarantee you I’ve heard them before, and I’m not going to be impressed by appeals to authority.

            Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would make sense if viable battery electric vehicles didn’t exist and battery technology wasn’t rapidly improving. But they do and it is.

          • jeffhre


      • Ben Helton

        God forbid you have accountability for what you say.

        You speak as if (hydrogen) “may be a viable energy source. Until then, it is dream”

        Guess what Steve. It’s no dream – its real. We produce hydrogen in MANY ways, and although ‘renewable sources’ are not the current way the majority is created, in the future, we always have a path for renewable fuel.

        • James Rowland

          Efficiency will always suck, for reasons of fundamental physics.

          Sure, you CAN do it. It’s dumb, though.

          • Dries V

            Not everything is about efficiency. The ability to store transport hold the energy till someone needs it. Tops the need for efficiency especially if the source of your energy is unlimited.

          • James Rowland

            That sunshine and wind keep flowing does NOT mean that collection of this energy is “unlimited.”

            Sustainable energy is a problem of magnitude. We have viable technologies, but not nearly enough capacity. Growing the supply chains takes time and is resource constrained.

            Adopting a storage system that throws away two thirds of production makes an already daunting problem three times bigger. So, efficiency DOES matter, PROFOUNDLY.

            There’s also the issue of energy returned on energy invested, which further amplifies the problem.

            Yes, storage is critical to making intermittent energy sources viable. Producing hydrogen just happens to be a poor way of doing it.

          • Dries V

            I said that the source is unlimited, that the infrastructure is limited by human choice is something the sun is not responsible for.

            For some German engineers the lack of efficiency did not matter to create a system where excess wind power is stored in the form of hydrogen gas. Lookup the energy park in Mainz they even got an web cam.

            For them hydrogen just make sense. It has a good energy density. You can transport, store and deliver anyway you like And the efficiency can compete with less flexible solution.

            Perhaps you still think that efficiency is the only factor on which a technology is evaluated. Others like me also consider the cost and flexibility of that technology.

          • James Rowland

            We cannot “choose” to snap our fingers and have infrastructure appear. It’s limited by what is possible, not by volition. WIth problems of this scale, strategy matters.

            It you think making a huge problem several times bigger doesn’t matter, you’re just stunningly naive.

          • Dries V

            Everything is a choice … and it’s not a huge problem. Calling me naive just makes your remarks sound weak.

          • James Rowland

            Not addressing anything I’ve said makes your remarks sound weak.

            Dismissing scaling of a problem being an issue when magnitude IS the problem makes you sound naive. So, I guess you are.

          • Dries V

            I addressed it by referring to a real world example. You just blindly ignored it by calling me naive.

            On the other had you keep on repeating that scaling of a problem (? I guess you mean efficiency) is an issue when magnitude IS the problem. Tell me how I can scale efficiency please. If I would scale an inefficient system. The efficiency will not go down or up (it could go down due to the economic of scale of course). Efficiency is expressed in percentage it will remain the same. Basic mathematics for naive persons.

            Lets take another example e.g. Musk. He happily claims that the problem of an expensive battery is resolved by scaling. There goes your theory about scaling of a problem. Next he says also that the amount of solar panels required to fuel the US is just a little dot on the card. Having two/three dot’s I don’t see as a problem of magnitude. If it then would solve the problem of distributing and scheduling the power production. I would be happy with an efficiency of 1/3.

            But I guess I and all the people who are working on a hydrogen infrastructure and power to gas plants are the ones that are being naive. You probably have the power of foresight

          • James Rowland

            I’ll remind you that the topic at hand here is hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and static generation. That’s what Japan is attempting.

            Your example shows what, exactly? That hydrogen synthesis can store energy? Not disputed.

            I mean what I wrote. Magnitude. Specifically, the difference in magnitude between required and available assets.

            Let’s take PV, since you mentioned it. How long do you suppose it takes to fill that “little dot on the card” at current production?

            Whatever the answer is, storing its energy production with hydrogen at least triples that compared with batteries and grid distribution, because the little dot now has to be that much bigger to offset the efficiency.

            Whatever investment was required for the supply chain to grow enough, hydrogen multiplies it before you even consider storage.

            It was already going to take decades, and that’s time we don’t have. This is why sweeping such a large efficiency deficit under the carpet is naive.

            People have been working on hydrogen for decades, because it was assumed batteries would never improve. Well, they are, rapidly. Get over it.

          • Rockne O’Bannon

            Dries, I see that you might be receptive to some looming problems that have been jumping out at me.

            1. I don’t think the US grid can handle thousands of EV owners coming home at 5 pm and charging up. And if it could handle plug in hybrids with 10 kWh batteries, how is it ever going to handle 80 kWh batteries used by some manufacturers. People at Stanford are starting to get a little leery about that prospect.

            2. Virtually all wind production grids have some of their capacity refused, particularly at night. This is anywhere from 17% in ERCOT in Texas to about 6% in Ireland. Particularly in smaller grids, this is a problem because the extra power cannot be sent to a neighboring grid. Japan has this problem, although not with wind.

            Whatever happens with batteries, using batteries for transport just amounts to throwing transportation loads onto an already strained grid. The answer is using excess capacity to produce fuels. Hydrogen is the obvious answer.

            Good luck to you. Spread the word.

          • Rockne O’Bannon

            Excellent point, Dries. And what Americans have a particularly hard time believing, all evidence to the contrary, is that different countries face different costs and resource choices.

            Japan has ALWAYS had to find different ways of doing things because it has few resources. Iceland too. And New Zealand and Denmark. Compared to them, the US has it easy. Drill baby Drill works like a charm if you are the US.

            Hydrogen is simply a medium for storing energy that can be generated in all kinds of ways, but ways that seem to be available to every nation on earth in one way or another.

            It is just no use arguing. The US does not have a single bullet train, and this kind of thinking shown in the article is exactly why. Seriously, how many battery vehicles equals one jumbo jet in terms of emissions?

          • Ken Gage

            Whoa! Someone’s talking about efficiency in a transportation world dominated by the 19th century technology known as the internal combustion engine???

            Ever notice that we went to the Moon on hydrogen and not gasoline? (The anti-hydrogen crowd has as much credibility as Rupert Murdoch brings to Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and now National Geographic. Zero.)

          • James Rowland

            The issue at hand here is HOW to replace that unsustainable 19th century technology.

            Hydrogen fuel cells make sense in rockets, because you already have pressurised hydrogen & oxygen, need electricity and don’t particularly care about the cost of the device (because it’s still peanuts compared to the whole vehicle.)

            Cars are nothing like that.

            What has zero credibility is the idea that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will thrive in a world where battery electric vehicles exist.

      • RexxSee

        Ben Helton is an anti EV paid shill doing it’s dirty work on every page of Green Car Reports. Yuck!
        He is also absurdly promoting Fool Cell cars .

        • Rockne O’Bannon

          Evidence? I see this “shill” accusation all the time, and I fail to see how this works. So he gets paid for every post? Do you really believe that?

          The only shill I have ever uncovered was a guy writing articles in favor of EVs while working as a lawyer advocating EVs. He did not put that in any disclaimer on his article. So, it happens on the author side, not the comment side.

  • Ben Helton

    “Once the world figures out how to make hydrogen gas and distribute it using clean, renewable power (from the sun, perhaps!), it may be a viable energy source. Until then, it is dream”

    Lol. You publish this the exact same time a hydrogen station is opening in the UK that is sourcing hydrogen from a wind mill that is attached to the station.

    Is this accidental ignorance or just blatant smearing of hydrogen technology?

    • Steve Hanley

      Not sure what your question is, Ben. I SAID hydrogen may be a viable energy source IF it is manufactured from renewable energy. Are you just trying to start an argument or do you just like to offend people? We AGREE. Sheesh. Get over yourself.

      • Ben Helton


        You said “once the world figures out” …

        We’ve already figured that out!!!! Come on man. The proof is in existence. THis isn’t some theoretical promise, it’s real vehicles, real fuel, on real renewable energy. No dream; all reality. Albeit not COMMON reality, it’s certainly not a DREAM

        • Jim Smith

          right and it no where remotely economically viable with massive tax payer subsidies. Much like the fossil fuel industry

        • Bert

          Fortunately, the rest of us would have worded that differently. We would have said something along the lines of “Once the world figures out how to economically make hydrogen from renewable energy”. I can’t see it ever being as economical as electric cars. Right now hydrogen isn’t even competitive with gasoline fuel costs! The Mirai costs about $0.25/mile. My 10 year old minivan runs about $0.16/mile. Your sedan should not cost more than my minivan to fuel, especially since it doesn’t even have better performance than my minivan.

        • Rockne O’Bannon

          Exactly right Ben.
          It is frightening how quickly the “adopters” of a couple years ago have become the reactionaries of today, quickly railing against change and innovation once they find their favorite technology and get wedded to it.

          I think batteries are going to hit a wall. A lot of people do. Hydrogen offers a difficult learning curve at first, but much less limited growth in the long run. Toyota is doing some heavy lifting here, and that needs to be appreciated.

          Hydrogen is an excellent means of producing fuels without burdening the grid. Its advantages are difficult for people to accept for now.

    • James Rowland

      Use that same windmill to charge BEVs and you can drive at least triple the distance.

      Nope. Hydrogen is still not making any sense from a strategic point of view. The sustainable transport problem is hard enough already without making it several times harder through use of an inferior technology.

      Yes, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is essentially a battery electric vehicle. The difference is that the battery is tiny and there’s a very expensive range extender. (HFCVs must have a battery because fuel cells cannot load follow quickly enough; an energy buffer is needed.)

      The battery size is of no small consequence. Cells have finite power density as well as energy density, so a small battery also has a low power limit. This is why HFCVs are and will always be inferior to BEVs for performance, too.

      Much worse end-to-end efficiency. Worse performance. On the road fuelling requires entirely new supply infrastructure. Home fuelling currently unavailable and will be far more complex and costly than an electricity outlet. I see nothing good here.

      Really, the only supposed advantage over BEVs is fuelling times. Thing is, that’s irrelevant.

      Overnight home charging and destination charging have you covered for your commute; most BEV owners never go to a station for an energy top-up. Hydrogen filling stations aren’t going to save you any time here, because you can’t beat zero.

      If you ever have to make longer trips, fast DC chargers have you covered, and can do the job quickly enough that they’re done before you finish the break you needed anyway.

      Hydrogen cars are already obsolete. Give it up.

  • Steve Hanley

    Wait a minute. I see what’s going on here. In this internet age, lots of people use an alias to hide their true identity. Ben Helton is so obviously a fictitious name. Donald Trump, is that you? ; – :

    • James Rowland

      Now now, that’s not very charitable. Stop picking on Donald Trump. 😉

    • Ben Helton

      Oh boy; joining the ranks of people who say I’m fake.

      Of course, if somebody disagrees with you, they must be a paid shill for the oil industry, right?

  • Joe Viocoe

    Wow, look at that ship design… Oh the humanity!

  • Ken Gage

    Hydrogen is coming, Steve. It’s smart, sustainable and green — so long as it comes from solar and wind-generated water electrolysis. Your article starts well and then nose-dives into fear mongering. You’re going to be so terribly wrong about hydrogen it will seem funny in 2020.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      Even if it is NOT from renewable sources today, it can be at any time in the future that people want it to be so.

      The idea is to limit emissions. If we can use waste power or waste heat to produce H2, that is a win.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    ” Once the world figures out how to make hydrogen gas and distribute it using clean, renewable power (from the sun, perhaps!), it may be a viable energy source. ”

    Electrolysis. Lawrence Livermore regularly reports that about HALF of all the electricity that is being generated in the US is simply wasted. ERCOT, the Texas grid, wastes 17% of the wind produced electricity that it gets. It does that on a regular basis. That is FREE power that can’t be put into expensive batteries, and it can’t be used at night or at times when the grid cannot handle it.

    Don’t tell me that producing hydrogen is necessarily difficult or expensive. I hear this a lot from the usual suspects, but smart people at Toyota, NREL, MIT, Stanford, and Iceland, etc. are not very concerned. It is always the battery people who can’t stop themselves from slapping their foreheads long enough to think it through.

    But hey, let’s go back to the bullet train reference. If you want to be that American guy who scoffs at Japan’s efforts, please be my guest. But Japan has operated its bullet train system nationally, using imported fuels the whole time, for 50 years now without a single fatal accident. So skeptical American guy… where is your bullet train?

    • Ben Helton

      Watch out; you just disagree’d with the author and his agenda. He will soon label you as a fictitious person with a fake / stolen identity.

      Commentators beware…..