Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics and plans to use the games to showcase the advantages of “clean hydrogen power” as it strives to build what prime minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe call a hydrogen society. Masuzoe told the Wall Street Journal recently, “The first Tokyo Olympics, 50 years ago, left a bullet train system as a legacy. I want to leave a hydrogen society as a legacy for the next Tokyo Olympics.”

Hydrogen society will require new ocean tankers

By the time the Summer Games kick off, Japanese officials hope to have thousands of hydrogen powered cars on the road, 100 fuel cell buses in operation, and a network of fueling stations supplying the Olympic Village. Industrial-size fuel cells will power buildings like the media center and the dormitories for the athletes.

There is only one problem. Japan has no domestic source of supply for hydrogen gas. A consortium of companies including Kawasaki Heavy Industries is planning to get it from low-grade coal found in Australia and then ship it across the Pacific in special tanker ships built by Kawasaki. Japan is also exploring the idea of using hydroelectric power in Canada or possibly Russia. That, too, would have to be transported in ships. It should be noted that none of these ships exist yet and 2020 is getting closer every day.

So, let’s see if we have this straight. Japan is going to run its Olympics on hydrogen that it gets from fossil fuels which it ships to Tokyo in cargo ships. Keep in mind that ocean going ships spew more carbon emissions each voyage than a couple million gasoline powered cars do in a year. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, no one in Japan has bothered to study what happened in Vancouver when it hosted the Olympics recently. It, too, placed a huge bet on hydrogen power and purchased a fleet of fuel cell buses for the games. But it had to truck in hydrogen from Toronto, across the plains and over the Rockies, in diesel-powered tanker trucks. After the games, the buses went into storage because they cost too much to operate. Some were sold for scrap; others were retrofitted with diesel engines. Can you say “disaster,” boys and girls?

Japan was shocked by the Fukushima disaster a few years ago. It had built its entire economy on cheap electricity from nuclear power plants and suddenly that whole idea was no longer valid. It had to scramble to keep its economy from collapsing and thought using hydrogen would be a good idea. (Plan B was re-starting is dormant coal fired generating plants and exporting that technology to other countries.)

Hydrogen is marketed as clean energy but it is anything but. So long as it is derived from fossil fuels and shipped long distances, the whole notion of a sustainable hydrogen economy is a fraud. Once the world figures out how to  make hydrogen gas and distribute it using clean, renewable power (from the sun, perhaps!), it may be a viable energy source. Until then, it is dream — some might say a nightmare. If Japan really wants to make a contribution to society, it should stop trying to substitute one fossil fuel for another and take a more active role in unlocking  the limitless potential of renewable solar energy

If there is anything about this that Abe-san and Masuzoe-san do not understand, they are welcome to contact me. I will explain it to them in 5 minutes or less in words even a politician can understand.

Related: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars — #FAIL, In Depth

Photo credit: Kawasaki Heavy Industries