TOKYO -- What will Japan's hydrogen society look like beyond the car market?
Imagine a city where houses and businesses have their own on-site fuel cell stacks that turn hydrogen into electricity for lights, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners.
Japan calls these cogeneration systems "ene-farms."
The country began deploying ene-farms in 2009, and some 200,000 residential ones are already in operation today, connected to the municipal gas supply. The first step is reforming that gas into hydrogen. The hydrogen is then fed into the fuel stack in a process that generates heat and electricity. The electricity powers the house while the heat helps generate hot water.
Japan's goal is to have 1.4 million ene-farms for residential use by 2020 and 5.3 million by 2030. Japan will introduce them for commercial and industrial use this year.
Cost is key. The 2020 target assumes a cost structure that will allow buyers of the ene-farms to recoup their investment within seven or eight years. By 2030, the goal is to shrink that time to five years.
In the intermediate term, ene-farms will convert natural gas to hydrogen on-site. But long term, as demand grows, Japan envisions replacing its infrastructure of natural gas pipelines with hydrogen pipelines. That would feed hydrogen directly into homes and businesses.
Meanwhile, as consumers slowly warm up to the idea of hydrogen for their daily driving, Japan plans to introduce hydrogen fuel cell buses, forklifts and other industrial vehicles, such as those that pull planes at airports.
The idea is to simultaneously drive down the costs of making fuel cell powertrain components and boost demand for fuel and fueling stations.
Tokyo launched its first hydrogen fuel cell city bus in March, a 77-seater made by Toyota. It is the first of some 100 fuel cell buses Tokyo wants in operation by the time the capital city hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics, to shuttle visitors and athletes. Toyota, a top sponsor of the games and a leading proponent of fuel cell technology, has a big stake in making it happen.
The bus shows how Toyota aims to eke out economies of scale wherever it can, by sharing components already developed for the four-seat Mirai fuel cell sedan. Each hydrogen bus, for instance, uses two of the Mirai's fuel cell stacks and 10 of its high-pressure hydrogen tanks.
And by logging long routes every day, buses are a key demand driver. One bus, for example, uses as much hydrogen fuel in a year as 45 fuel cell cars such as the Mirai, said Taiyo Kawai, a hydrogen fuel cell general manager at Toyota's r&d management division.
"The impact of the fuel cell buses is very significant because it spurs demand for fuel," said Kawai. "We can't achieve cost performance if we manufacture fuel cells just for vehicles."
Meanwhile, a Japanese consortium, including the cities of Yokohama and Kawa-saki as well as Toshiba Corp. and Japanese energy company Iwatani Corp., launched a test fleet of hydrogen-powered forklifts last year to service warehouses and factories along the Tokyo Bay waterfront.
It helps that Toyota Group company Toyota Industries Corp. is the world's biggest manufacturer of forklifts. A Toyota executive projected last year that there could be as many as 100,000 of these industrial vehicles powered by fuel cells in use here by 2030.