TOKYO - When Honda Motor Co. Ltd. leased a fuel cell-powered FCX to the Japanese government in December, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi turned it into a photo op, smiling and waving to the cameras from inside the car.
Koizumi's government has set a lofty goal: Put 5 million fuel cell vehicles into service here by 2020. Japan is embracing fuel cell technology for its potential to clean the air, curb global warming and reduce its almost 100 percent dependence on imported oil.
By the end of this month, four dedicated hydrogen-refueling stations will be operating in the Tokyo area, a visible affirmation of Japan's commitment to the technology. Almost certainly the highest concentration of such stations in the world, the four should be sufficient to refuel the 11 fuel cell vehicles that the government has approved as part of its Fuel Cell Demonstration Project.
Even so, real-world tests of fuel cell vehicles here by Honda, Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., General Motors, DaimlerChrysler AG and
Hino Motors Ltd. will be limited by strict government rules on where stations can be built.
The regulations allow such refueling stations to be built only in a designated industrial area, and prohibit gasoline stations from installing hydrogen equipment. If the rules are left unchanged, energy companies will have to build stand-alone sites to service fuel cell vehicles - an expensive, unfeasible proposition in Japan, where land is scarce.
"That won't pay off," says an official at Cosmo Oil Co., which operates 5,000 gasoline stations in Japan and a hydrogen station in Yokohama that opened last week.
To service the targeted 5 million fuel cell vehicles by 2020, nearly 3,600 hydrogen stations will be necessary, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which leads the national fuel cell project.
That's a daunting task. "Building up the infrastructure will be really challenging," says Hiroshi Yamaguchi, deputy director of the ministry's new and renewable energy division. "And the biggest problem is regulations."
The five fuel cell cars leased directly to the government - one Honda FCX and four Toyota FCHVs - are refueled at a mobile hydrogen station in the courtyard of the ministry building.
But because that is not an industrial area that would allow a permanent station, refueling the cars requires a daily series of expensive and comical sidesteps around the government's rules.
Every day, the supplier company, Nippon Sanso Corp., loads its mobile refueling system - consisting of 4 units weighing 6.5 tons in total - onto two diesel-powered trucks by crane and transports them miles across Tokyo to the ministry courtyard.
There, the components are unloaded and set up in about an hour. After the cars are refueled, the station is broken down into its component units again, loaded back onto the trucks and returned to the supplier.
He estimates that most of the annual refueling cost of about ¥30 million to ¥40 million, or about $250,000 to $330,000 at current exchange rates, goes to pay Nippon Sanso's three truck drivers and station operators.
Confronted by the costs of its regulations, the government has begun deregulating to smooth the way for fuel cell vehicles. It is reviewing 28 relevant items in the regulations, including the one that bars permanent hydrogen stations from being built outside industrial areas.