Japanese pushing for fuel cells as Toyota hybrid sales pass 10 million

February 16, 2017

Toyota has announced it has sold over 10 million hybrid cars as of the end of January. It estimates this has managed to avert approximately 77 million tonnes of CO2 entering the atmosphere and has saved around 29 million litres of petrol. The Japanese OEM is well known for its hybrid technology, with the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid car launched in 1997, synonymous with the powertrain. 

The other alternative fuel technology associated with the brand is hydrogen. Toyota is at the vanguard of Japan’s hydrogen efforts, backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for use not only to power cars, but also to heat homes and keep factories running. Hydrogen is a particular priority in Japan as it is one of the few ways the nation can both cut emissions and reduce its reliance on imported fuels, reducing costs and improving energy security as it reduces its dependence on nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. 

Another catalyst for the hydrogen push is the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, which Japan sees as a showcase for its technological prowess. It has announced plans to spend ¥45.2 billion (€374m) on hydrogen fuel cell vehicle subsidies and hydrogen fuelling stations by the time of the games, including more than 100 fuel cell buses criss-crossing the nation’s capital. 

Abe told his parliament in January: ‘Hydrogen energy is an ace in the hole for energy security and measures against global warming. […] A hydrogen society of the future is about to begin here in Japan.’ 

Pursuing hydrogen power makes sense in Japan because its energy costs are extremely high, with the resource-poor nation (like many East Asian countries) relying on expensive liquefied natural gas (known as LNG) exports post-Fukushima. Japan envisions liquefied hydrogen supplies coming from the US and Australia. 

Taiyo Kawai, project general manager at Toyota’s R&D and Engineering Management Division, told Bloomberg: ‘It’s about increasing the number of players and putting in place hydrogen infrastructure in the most appropriate locations so that hydrogen business becomes viable in 10 to 15 years.’ 

Sourcing and handling hydrogen remains one of the biggest logistical and economic challenges for the technology, making the hydrogen refuelling station infrastructure expensive. 

As a result, hydrogen is not expected to play a dominant role as a source of energy in Japan any time soon, with the nation’s 2030 power mix outlook not even mentioning the technology. 

The industry is forecast to grow in value 46-fold over the next 15 years to ¥4.9 trillion (€40 billion), from ¥106 billion (€0.88 billion) in the year to March 2016, according to Tokyo-based research company Fuji Keizai Co. 

Toyota targets annual sales of 30,000 hydrogen vehicles by 2020 and GM and Honda plan to jointly make hydrogen fuel cell systems in the US for cars launching in 2020. Toyota also plans to launch its first plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) in 2020, in a major strategy reversal announced last November that saw it admit that EVs were at least needed temporarily to meet emissions regulations and reduce climate change, while hydrogen technology has time to develop.

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