The Role of Hydrogen in Japan’s Strategic Approach to Energy

By Stefan Sjöström, President, International on November 27, 2018
Stefan Sjöström
Home  / Blog  /  The Role of Hydrogen in Japan’s Strategic Approach to Energy

It took an accident few could have predicted for Japan to reformulate their energy needs strategically. On March 11, 2011, a major earthquake, followed by a 15-meter tsunami, hit the Fukushima Daiichi (“Number One”) plant in the northern part of the country, resulting in a catastrophic nuclear accident. This is a story about learning and improvement when faced with difficult challenges.

In the years that followed the incident, Japan updated its national Basic Energy Plan to reflect four fundamental energy priorities including energy security, improving economic efficiency, environmental suitability, and safety―otherwise commonly referred to as “3E+S.” These underlying pillars call for innovation and investment in energy sources that help the country stay on plan and prosper. Hydrogen is the keystone behind Japan’s new energy policy, innovation, and focus.

In 2014 the country declared, via the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), its plans and roadmap to become a “Hydrogen Society.” A few weeks ago, ministers and government officials from 20 countries attended a Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting in Tokyo and pledged to “step up cooperation in promoting the use of hydrogen as an alternative energy source by sharing technology and standards.”

Clean energy from the element that produces light and water is set to help Japan reach their strategic energy goals, without compromises.

The Imperative of Thinking Strategically About Energy

For much of the twentieth century, the only strategic way to think about energy was to ensure a country had access to enough supply to safely meet demand. By far, most electricity choices involved hydrocarbons and hydroelectric power. Wind and solar were in their early stages of technological development, while in most countries, nuclear energy was seen as a fringe option limited by military, safety and waste concerns. Decisions were based on price and supply availability.

Today, things are vastly different. Viable energy choices have multiplied while greenhouse gas emissions have become a major concern and key driver for supply decisions. The promise of unlimited, carbon-free energy from nuclear power plants has diminished in recent years, with countries like Japan, France, and Germany decreasing their dependence on nuclear energy. All the while solar, wind, and hydrogen have progressed to the point where goals like those reflected in Japan’s Basic Energy Plan are achievable without trade-offs between economic growth and energy security. It is now generally understood that clean energy creates jobs. As a result, governments can now think strategically about sustainable energy that is widely available.

3E+S: No-Compromise Energy for Japan

“3E+S” is how Japan’s energy priorities, contained in their Basic Energy Plan, are commonly known. A brief from the Japan 2050 Low Carbon Navigator, a government online initiative to make it easy for citizens and policymakers to navigate energy options that the government is exploring, explains 3E+S as:

“The focus of the nation’s energy policy, emphasizing energy security, economic efficiency, and environmental protection without compromising safety. Second, it emphasizes the need to look at both supply and demand side options by creating a supply‐demand structure that is multi‐layered, diversified, and flexible.”

At the heart of this energy plan is the realization that energy can’t be planned in isolation from both economic drivers and its impact on the environment. A country like Japan, hit by an energy accident like the one in Fukushima, knows and understands all too well the interconnection between energy, society, and environment.

The Role of Hydrogen in Japan’s 3E+S Energy Strategy

Energy security, economic efficiency, and environmental protection, without compromising on safety, as Japan’s Basic Energy Plan calls for, are best achieved by having an energy mix that works in concert to provide the country’s energy needs without compromises. Hydrogen, as demonstrated by the two dozen ministers who attended Japan’s Hydrogen Ministerial Meeting in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago, plays a crucial role to enable these objectives. Accelerating the development and adoption of hydrogen energy applications is central to the 3E+S initiative.

Like wind and solar, hydrogen has seen major technological innovation over the past decade. As reported by The Mainichi, “The Japan-hosted ministerial meeting was designed to coordinate global efforts to create a society where more hydrogen is used in everyday life.” From public and private transportation to hydrogen use by utilities to solve the variability of wind and solar power, these “everyday life” applications are multiplying every year.

Japan takes their 3E+S plan seriously. For instance, it is two of Japan’s main automakers, Toyota, and Honda, who have successfully launched hydrogen-powered cars in the United States (the Mirai and Clarity models, respectively). Furthermore, the country’s commitment through the Paris Agreement to a “26 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 2013 levels,” as reported by The Japan Times, requires clean energy like that of hydrogen in their energy mix.

The Hydrogen Olympics

Last year Harvard Business School published an article with the intriguing title, “Tokyo’s surprise for the 2020 Olympics―Hydrogen, the energy for next generation.” The article asserts that, just like in 1964 when the city last hosted the Olympic Games and “surprised the world by introducing the fastest, safest, and most reliable bullet train, the Shinkansen,” we may be looking into a new transformational surprise: a hydrogen society as the legacy of the 2020 Olympics.

This is no surprise, especially in light of summits like the Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting. Specifically, HBS writes:

“For the transportation sector, TMG has set up a ¥40 billion ($330 million) fund to promote the use of hydrogen energy and build up Japan’s ecological technologies ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games. The fund covers the cost of building hydrogen stations, promoting fuel cell vehicles, and providing fuel cells for business and industrial use.”

Collaboration to Make It Happen

HBS concludes its article by stating, “to make hydrogen energy something anyone can use, the whole society must get on board.” They further pose the closing question: “How can Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Japanese government, and the private sector further spread the vision to its people and the world?”

At the Hydrogen Ministerial Meeting, Japan’s government called for global collaboration to accelerate the applications of clean and available energy sources like hydrogen. This open attitude is in line with the country’s strategic approach to energy, as our times call for collaborative innovation in all areas of energy so that economies can thrive without the traditional compromises associated with energy.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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