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20 March 2020

Out of the ashes – Green Hydrogen dawns at Fukushima

The world’s largest green hydrogen plant has been completed in Fukushima, Japan. With the industry building momentum, the record won’t last long, but Japan is among several countries laying down significant groundwork to establish a lead within the emerging sector.

The Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R) can produce up to 100 kilograms of green hydrogen per hour from water, using a 20 MW solar array alongside grid power to run a 10 MW electrolyzer.

FH2R is the birthchild of a consortium including Toshiba, Tohoku Electric Power as well as Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Development Organization, costing $189 million since development started 2 years ago. As a pilot project for commercial hydrogen, initial output will be used for hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, while the facility will remain as a research center for the technology in the long-run.

If run continuously through a fuel cell, the 100 kilogram per hour production of hydrogen can be equated to approximately 3 MW of constant electricity, although its benefit clearly lies in its flexibility when compared to traditional renewables – the production could also fill 560 fuel cell vehicles per day. Located at Namie Town, approximately 10 kilometers from the site of 2011’s Nuclear disaster, the hydrogen plant comes as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to reinvent the region as a center for green energy.

Governments worldwide are currently investing close to $1 billion per year in hydrogen, with Japan responsible for over a third of this. This is part of a strong push for clean energy in Japan ahead of this year’s Tokyo Olympics, with the country targeting an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. However, this has been somewhat overshadowed by the country’s drive for more electricity generating capacity overall, as the country has moved to phase out nuclear power since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

This largely remains the case; there are some 26 restart applications for different reactors pending which are currently going nowhere and the share of nuclear in the production mix has fallen to just 6%. This has meant that the country has had to increase its dependence on coal, oil and gas in the short term – for a brief period Japan became the world’s largest LNG importer, and 22 new coal projects have recently been rubber-stamped by the government.

While shying away from committing to a complete a coal phaseout, Japan is not totally unambitious in terms of decarbonization – but it has placed more focus on emerging technologies, so will initially appear as a laggard in through the early energy transition. While vague promises of CCUS are worrying, both Offshore wind and Green Hydrogen are among the key areas of focus withing Japan’s plan. In 2017, the government unveiled its hydrogen strategy, with aims of energy self-sufficiency, CO2 reduction and export potential.

This falls in line with Japan’s largest company, Toyota, which is approaching the electric vehicle transition in a different manner to other major players – reiterating last week at Forecourt Trader’s summit that hydrogen fuel-cell, rather than battery powered electric vehicles, “will be the mainstay of future mobility.” Manager of alternative fuels Jon Hunt stated that “what we’re seeing today is a rapid shift into battery, because in order to produce fuel cell power, you need to have an electric power train first, so that’s where the development is occurring, before moving to FCEV.”

The FH2R project claims to surpass the record electrolysis capacity of the 6 MW H2Future plant at Voestalpine’s steel making facility in Linz, Austria, and comes as part of an unprecedented rise in momentum for Green Hydrogen on an international scale – with many countries bidding to become an early leader in the sector.

Germany has a similar 10 MW electrolysis plant, REFHYNE, currently under construction at a Shell refinery due for completion by late 2020, with another 30 MW pilot project in the country’s Northwest set to pave the way for a 700 MW version from 2025. One of the country’s hydrogen developers, Enapter, has preemptively criticized the FH2R project this week, claiming that technology in Germany is already capable of achieving the costs that Japan is aiming for by 2030 as a result of the project – claiming that 1 cubic meter of hydrogen will be produced from 4.3 kWh of electricity by next year.

Last week Shell and Gasunie also raised the bar, launching their NortH2 initiative for the Netherlands, to dedicate between 3 and 4 GW of offshore wind turbines to green hydrogen production by 2027, before ramping this up to around 10 GW by 2040. With feasibility studies set to be completed this year, the project follows Orsted’s announcement that the soon-to-be world’s largest offshore wind farm, Hornsea 2, will power green hydrogen production at ITM Power’s Gigastack project, UK, using modular 5 MW electrolyzers. EDF has similarly aired plans of powering hydrogen production at its UK nuclear facilities, following the H2H consortium’s feasibility study.

Portugal has been equally keen to get in on the action, increasing funding from €600 million up to €1.6 billion, to produce a gigawatt scale solar-plus-green-hydrogen plant at the facility. Australia looks set to be Japan’s largest competitor in the Asia-Pacific region, with Siemens backing a 5 GW solar + wind Murchison project in the country’s West, aiming to deploy its own Silyzer electrolyzers. Similar small-scale developments are ongoing in South Korea and China.