How Japan's big bet on hydrogen could revolutionize the energy market. The Wall Street Journal article
Japan has built the world's third largest economy on an industrial base fueled by imported oil, gas and coal.
Now, it is planning to shift a large chunk of that energy to hydrogen, in one of the world's biggest bets on an energy source long considered too expensive and inefficient to be realistic – writes the WSJ .
Change is a vital piece of the country's plan to eliminate carbon emissions in 30 years. If successful, it could also lay the foundations for a global supply chain that would finally allow hydrogen to become a source of energy of its own and sideline oil and coal – similar to the way the country opened. the road to liquefied natural gas in the 1970s, some experts say.
Hydrogen has been hypnotized before, and there are still major economic and technical challenges to overcome. Japan's approach is likely to be a gradual process of moving away from fossil fuels over many years, so it won't cut carbon emissions quickly in the beginning. Nor will it resolve his addiction to foreign energy. The country is planning to initially use hydrogen produced largely from imported fossil fuels.
But like many countries, Japan is realizing that it cannot reach its zero emissions target by 2050 with renewable sources like solar and wind alone. Hydrogen emits water vapor when used, rather than greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. It can be used to replace fossil fuels in industries where renewables don't work well.
The Japanese government has more than doubled its hydrogen-related research and development budget to nearly $ 300 million in the two years to 2019, a figure that does not include the millions invested by private companies.
In December, Japan released a preliminary roadmap that predicts that hydrogen and related fuels provide 10% of the energy for electricity generation – from practically zero now – as well as a significant portion of the energy for other uses. such as shipping or producing steel by 2050. The government is refining a final energy plan now, which could contain official targets for hydrogen development and an estimate of how much it will cost.
Eventually, the government should provide subsidies, as well as disincentives for carbon-emitting technologies. Japan's industrial plants are building ships, gas terminals and other infrastructure to make hydrogen a big part of daily life.
Japan's largest power company, JERA Co. is planning to reduce carbon emissions by mixing hydrogen-based ammonia in its coal-fired plants, and in May signed a memorandum of understanding with one of the largest ammonia producers in the world. world to develop the supply.
The country's conglomerates are looking for places to source ammonia and hydrogen. Shipping companies such as Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha are designing boats that run on these fuels.
Hydrogen can also be stored and used in fuel cells, which pack more power in the same amount of space as electric batteries. This makes hydrogen more suitable for aircraft or ships that have to carry energy supplies over long distances.
Another advantage is that hydrogen is a technology in which Japan can take the lead and reduce dependence on China, which is emerging as a major alternative energy power and the world's largest supplier of solar panels and electric batteries.
With 80% of solar panels now coming from China, "we have some concerns" about future energy security, says Masakazu Toyoda, president of Japan's Institute of Energy Economics, who also sits on a committee that advises the government on strategy. energy.
The International Energy Agency said in May that hydrogen will be needed, along with solar and wind energy, if the world is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Its roadmap for the best way "Technically feasible" to get there, he predicted that hydrogen and related fuels will make up 13% of the total energy mix that year, while investments could exceed $ 470 billion annually.
In the United States, some states and companies are investing in hydrogen projects such as fueling stations, although efforts are still sporadic.
The European Union presented its hydrogen strategy last year and estimated that investments in the industry could reach hundreds of billions of dollars by 2050. Several European oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC and BP PLC , are supporting new hydrogen projects. Airbus this year unveiled plans for three hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Elsewhere in Asia, a consortium of South Korean conglomerates including Hyundai in March announced $ 38 billion in hydrogen-related investments by 2030. China expects to have hundreds of hydrogen-powered buses ready for the Beijing Winter Olympics early. of 2022.
A key problem is that hydrogen is not found alone in nature, which means it must be extracted from compounds such as water or fossil fuels. This takes energy. It takes more energy to produce pure hydrogen than it comes out when the hydrogen is consumed.
The most common ways of producing hydrogen, by extracting it from natural gas or coal, also produce a lot of carbon dioxide. The long-term goal is to produce hydrogen in a "green" way, using electricity from renewable energy sources, but for now it is more expensive.
Storing and transporting hydrogen is also difficult. The gas is so light and takes up so much space at normal temperatures that it has to be compressed or liquefied to be transported efficiently. Hydrogen does not turn into liquid until it is cooled to minus 253 degrees Celsius, just 20 degrees warmer than absolute zero.
Japan's plan may be one of the most important in the world for its bold idea of using ammonia. Ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that does not emit carbon dioxide, solves some of the problems of hydrogen. It is more expensive to produce, but much easier to transport and store – and therefore trade – than pure hydrogen. And it is already produced in large quantities all over the world, especially for fertilizers.
Critics say hydrogen and related fuels are not worth the effort. Generating electricity from pure hydrogen in Japan would currently cost about eight times more than natural gas or solar and nine times more than coal, according to some estimates.
Greenpeace has crushed Japan's plans to generate power from ammonia. He concluded in a March analysis that the idea was "an expensive greenwash," because it will likely still involve some greenhouse gas emissions and cost more than producing renewable energy.
Volkswagen estimates that hydrogen-powered electric vehicles use up to three times more energy than battery-powered ones. Tesla CEO Elon Musk called hydrogen fuel cells for cars stupid.
But Japan's circumstances mean it has limited options. It imports nearly 90% of the energy it uses, and has little space to build solar or wind farms. Japan closed most of its nuclear power plants after the 2011 tsunami caused one of them to melt in Fukushima; the public remains largely opposed to nuclear power.
The zero-carbon roadmap that Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry unveiled in December called for the import of millions of tons of ammonia.
“It's a huge effort,” says Ryo Minami, METI's director general of oil, gas and mineral resources, which is leading its ammonia strategy. "Japan is embarking on something that has never been done anywhere in the world."
Although Japan has been dedicated to hydrogen since the 1970s, commercialization has been slow. Attitudes began to change a few years ago, after a government-sponsored research project led by Shigeru Muraki, a former vice president of Tokyo Gas Co. Muraki proposed starting with ammonia until the technologies that use l pure hydrogen.
Mr. Muraki's group found that it could be burned at current coal and gas-fired power plants, which currently produce three-quarters of Japan's electricity. Although combustion emits nitrogen oxide, a greenhouse gas, Japanese engineers have worked to reduce emissions and say the rest can be filtered so that it is not released.
Japanese services could first secure the ammonia produced from fossil fuels and find ways to capture or offset the carbon dioxide emitted during that process, Mr. Muraki reasoned. They could switch to "green" ammonia as demand grows and prices fall.
Mr. Muraki talked about the idea to government officials, such as Mr. Minami from the Ministry of Economy. The problem was that Japan needed economies of scale to bring down the prices of hydrogen or ammonia, and no major consumers had emerged.
This is where JERA came into play. The power producer was formed after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster left its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, in bad financial shape. In 2019, Tepco and another large utility moved their thermal power plants to JERA, leaving them with plants that supplied about a third of Japan's electricity.
JERA calculated that switching Japan's power to fully renewable energy would mean rebuilding the country's power grid, a costly and time-consuming process, says Hisahide Okuda, head of JERA's strategy department. But the existing grid could support enough renewable energy to meet half of the country's demand.
To decarbonize the rest, Mr. Okuda turned to ammonia and won over skeptical board members. JERA unveiled its plan to move its coal-fired power plants to an ammonia mix in October.
In Yokohama, heavy industry manufacturer IHI Corp. is retrofitting gas turbines to burn an ammonia-gas mixture.
All that needs to be done is to replace the burner, says Masahiro Uchida, a senior researcher at IHI, pointing to a bronze-colored cylinder atop the main turbine chamber. IHI has also figured out how to adapt charcoal ovens, and hopes to sell them in countries like Australia or Malaysia, as well as Japan.
JERA and IHI are beginning a government-sponsored trial to burn a 20% ammonia blend at one of JERA's largest coal-fired power plants. If that's okay, JERA says it hopes to introduce the technology to all of its coal-fired power plants by 2030, and then gradually increase the percentage of ammonia used, reducing the carbon emitted.
This would require a massive boost in ammonia supply. JERA's initial test requires around 500,000 tons per year, about half of what Japan consumes now. By 2050, Japan could consume 30 million tons of ammonia and 20 million tons of hydrogen per year, according to projections from METI and an advisory group. About 20 million tons of ammonia are now traded globally.
The task of figuring out how to develop that supply is falling to companies like Mitsubishi Corp. and Mitsui & Co. who import much of the fuel and chemicals Japan uses today.
The biggest challenge is the price. Government officials and industry executives estimate that it would cost about 24 percent more to produce electricity if public utilities mixed 20 percent ammonia than just burning coal. Industry executives say the price gap could be manageable with government support and incentives.
Mitsui is discussing the possibility of a large new ammonia plant in Saudi Arabia, which the conglomerate concluded is the cheapest source. Mitsubishi is in talks with potential suppliers in North America, the Middle East and Asia, and is also speaking with Japanese shipping companies about building large ammonia transport vessels.
Shipping company Nippon Yusen is seeking preliminary approval for a massive ammonia tanker that would also be powered by ammonia, and hopes to have it ready for delivery by 2028.
Meanwhile, companies are making investments that they hope to accelerate the day when pure hydrogen can be used. Japanese auto, truck and heavy equipment manufacturers including Toyota Motor Corp. are pushing for more hydrogen-powered vehicles. High prices and a shortage of filling stations have limited adoption so far.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. is developing the technology needed to handle liquefied hydrogen, including double-layer stainless steel tanks and pipes, with a vacuum between the layers for insulation.
"We are entering the critical period" for hydrogen development, says Motohiko Nishimura, the executive responsible for Kawasaki's hydrogen boost. "At the very least, it is our job to prove that all of this is technically possible."
(Extract from the foreign press review by Epr Comunicazione )
This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Start Magazine at the URL https://www.startmag.it/energia/tutte-le-mosse-del-giappone-sull-idrogeno/ on Sat, 19 Jun 2021 05:29:29 +0000.