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Is ‘blue hydrogen’ Japan’s reply to coal?

It is a wonderful autumn afternoon and I am standing on a hillside looking over Tokyo Bay. Beside me is Takao Saiki, a often mild-mannered gentleman in his 70s. However at this time Saiki-San is offended. “It is a complete joke,” he says, in good English. “Simply ridiculous!” The reason for his misery is a huge development web site blocking our view throughout the bay – a 1.3-gigawatt coal-fired energy station within the making.

I do not perceive why we nonetheless must burn coal to generate electrical energy,” says Saiki-San’s buddy, Rikuro Suzuki. “This plant alone will emit greater than seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide yearly!” Suzuki-San’s level is an effective one. Should not Japan be reducing its coal consumption, not rising it, at a time of nice concern about coal’s influence on the local weather?

So why the coal? The reply is the 2011 Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. In 2010 about one third of Japan’s electrical energy got here from nuclear energy, and there have been plans to construct much more. However then the 2011 catastrophe hit, and all Japan’s nuclear energy vegetation have been shut down. Ten years later most stay closed – and there’s a lot of resistance to restarting them. Of their place Japan’s gas-fired energy stations have been doing numerous additional time. However, as Britain has discovered just lately, pure fuel is dear.

So, the Japanese authorities determined to construct 22 new coal-fired energy stations, to run on low-cost coal imported from Australia. Economically it made sense. Environmentally, not a lot. Japan is now underneath intense stress to cease utilizing coal. As a substitute of closing the outdated coal vegetation and switching to renewables, Japan’s reply is to modify to burning hydrogen or ammonia.

“The funding made by electrical energy firms in coal-fired energy vegetation would all of the sudden be ineffective with out worth of their steadiness sheet,” says Prof Tomas Kaberger, an skilled on vitality coverage at Chalmers College in Sweden. “And it could create monetary difficulties for electrical energy firms after which for banks and pension funds. And that’s the problem for Japan.”

The vegetation could be fairly simply transformed to burning hydrogen or ammonia, neither of which produce any carbon dioxide. So this looks like a great resolution. However Japan’s authorities has a lot larger ambitions than that. It needs to be the world’s first “hydrogen financial system“. That is the place the carmaker Toyota is available in.

It is one other pretty sunny day and I am in downtown Tokyo, at a shiny new hydrogen filling station. Standing on the forecourt is a smooth new Toyota Mirai. This can be a huge luxurious automotive, in regards to the measurement of a giant Lexus. I slip into the leather-clad cabin, press the “begin” button and glide out on to the road. The automotive is extraordinarily easy, utterly silent, and the one factor dribbling on to the highway behind me is a little bit of water.

Is ‘blue hydrogen’ Japan’s answer to coal?

The Mirai (which implies future in Japanese) is Toyota’s first zero-emissions electrical automotive. Not like different electrical automobiles, the Mirai does not have an enormous battery underneath the ground. As a substitute, it has a gasoline cell underneath the bonnet, and hydrogen tanks underneath the again seat. The hydrogen is handed by means of the gasoline cell, the place it is transformed to electrical energy, which runs the electrical motors. It is the identical know-how that was used to energy the Apollo spacecraft on the Moon missions.

To many individuals this know-how is an odd selection. It is costlier and sophisticated than batteries. Elon Musk has known as hydrogen automobilessilly“. Not true, says Hisashi Nakai, the top of Toyota’s public affairs division. He says the corporate‘s imaginative and prescient for gasoline cells goes a lot additional than simply automobiles.

I do know folks have totally different opinions,” he tells me, “however the vital factor is realising carbon neutrality. We want to consider how we are able to take advantage of out of gasoline cell know-how. We strongly imagine in hydrogen as a strong and vital vitality.” What Nakai-san says reveals Toyota is pondering of a future the place hydrogen gasoline cells are in every single place, in properties and workplaces and factories, in addition to automobiles. And it needs to be on the forefront of this new hydrogen society.

This brings us to the ultimate, and most vital query. The place is the hydrogen to energy Japan zero carbon society going to return from? The reply is “blue hydrogen”. Make hydrogen from water utilizing renewable vitality and also you get “inexperienced hydrogen”. The issue is inexperienced hydrogen is de facto costly.

As a substitute, at this time most hydrogen is made out of pure fuel, and even coal. That’s low-cost however it produces a number of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, for those who seize these greenhouse gases and bury them within the floor, you’re allowed to name it “blue hydrogen”. That is precisely what Japan says it’ll do.

Earlier this yr, Japan and Australia opened a joint venture within the state of Victoria to show a kind of coal known as lignite, or brown coal, into hydrogen. The hydrogen is then liquified to minus 253C, then piped right into a specifically constructed ship which carries it to Japan.

What occurs to the greenhouse gases produced on the web site? Proper now, they go straight up into the environment. However Japan and Australia are promising that, in some unspecified time in the future sooner or later, they’ll start capturing the greenhouse fuel produced on the Latrobe Valley web site and inject it into the ocean flooring off the coast.

Local weather change campaigners are horrified by this plan. They are saying the know-how to seize and retailer greenhouse gases is unproven and it’ll lock Japan into digging up huge portions of brown coal for many years to return. In accordance with Prof Kaberger, the largest gap within the plan is financial.

“Technically it is doable, however it’s going to all the time be costly,” he says. “Utilizing fossil fuels with carbon seize and storage will all the time be costlier than utilizing fossil fuels alone, and now in lots of elements of the world renewable electrical energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels with out carbon seize.”

Prof Kaberger thinks the Japanese authorities selected blue hydrogen a decade in the past when renewables have been costly, and they’re now locked right into a plan that not is sensible. “Japanese firms want low-cost electrical energy to be aggressive and so they want clear electrical energy to be internationally acceptable,” he says. “Which means they want renewable electrical energy. Delaying this growth will hurt the Japanese financial system.”

Within the meantime, on the sting of Tokyo Bay, development continues apace. The enormous new coal-fired energy station will go browsing in 2023. It’s anticipated to run for at the very least 40 years. “I’m ashamed of Japan,” says Hikari Matsumoto, a 21-year-old activist who has joined us to look out from the hillside. “I am so pissed off,” she says. “In different nations younger individuals are out on the road protesting, however Japanese individuals are so quiet. Our technology must voice its opinion.”

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