Brunell Commentary: Japanese Hydrogen Pilot May Work in Washington


The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were billed as the “Hydrogen Olympics!” Then along came COVID-19 and sporting events worldwide were put on hold. The summer games were delayed until 2021. Postponing the games cost Japan billions and thwarted its efforts to showcase the Japanese “Green Growth” strategies.

Japan, like the United States, plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050. While countries like China are betting on lithium batteries, Japan’s centerpiece is hydrogen. As Japanese researchers develop new technology using renewable electricity generated by wind, solar and hydropower to produce hydrogen, those projects could work in Washington as well. More on that later.

In the last 18 months, COVID-19 changed everything. It’s also not just the disease itself — it’s the supply chain disruption, wrote Tess Joosse, an editorial fellow at Scientific American (July 30). The pandemic’s ripple effect is continuing to have a “major impact on all kinds of industries in unexpected ways that nobody would have really been able to prepare for.”

Joosse added: “The Olympic Village, home to the athletes during the games, was slated to run on it. One-hundred hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered buses and 500 hydrogen-powered cars were supposed to transport competitors and staff between venues. Even the Olympic Flame would be carried by hydrogen fueled torches which would complete the journey lighting the hydrogen-fueled cauldron in Tokyo’s National Stadium.”

When the Olympics opened late last month, only one building in the Olympic Village was actually hydrogen-powered and propane was used for part of the torch relay. 

COVID-19 hasn’t dampened Japan’s enthusiasm for hydrogen development, Keith Wipke, a hydrogen and fuel cell researcher at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told Scientific American. “I certainly have seen no indications that Japan or any other country has backed off on their quite ambitious aspirations for hydrogen — if anything, I think they have doubled down.” 

Japan built the world’s third-largest economy on an industrial base powered by imported oil, gas and coal. However, its leader concluded Japan can’t achieve its zero emissions goal with renewable sources like solar and wind alone, Wall Street Journal’s Phred Dvorak wrote. They are betting heavily on hydrogen largely because it emits water not carbon dioxide.

One key problem is hydrogen isn’t found by itself in nature, which means it must be extracted from compounds such as water or fossil fuels, Dvorak added. Currently, the most economical way is extracting it from natural gas and coal, but that process also produces carbon dioxide. The long-term goal is to make hydrogen the “green” way, using electricity from renewable energy sources to break down water — but for now that is more costly. 

Japan is working to reduce “green hydrogen production costs” from breaking apart water through electrolysis; however, electrolysis uses lots of electricity. A Japanese consortium started constructing a large-scale (10 megawatts) renewable energy-powered hydrogen production unit, the largest of its class in the world.  

It will take electricity from a large solar farm (20 megawatts) built on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster site. The 2011 earthquake measured 9.0 and the ensuing tsunami caused reactor system failures.

Hydrogen produced at Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R) will also be used to power hydrogen fuel cells in cars, buses, trucks and possibly airplanes. 

While the facility is also tied into the electrical grid as backup, it is designed to use surplus wind and solar electricity. 

If this pilot project is successful, it could be applicable in central Washington where hydro, nuclear, wind and solar produce high volumes of CO2 free electricity. Imagine a series of green hydrogen production facilities in Washington which make liquid hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline and diesel?  

Hopefully, it could happen.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at