Ja­pan’s pride might pre­vent Toy­ota from drop­ping fuel-cell tech

The National - News - - BUSINESS IN DEPTH - SHELLY BANJO AND DAVID FICKLING

The video­tape recorder that lost out to VHS in the for­mat wars of the 1980s re­mains a re­minder to all ex­ec­u­tives about the per­ils of hold­ing tight to one tech­nol­ogy when the rest of your in­dus­try is pur­su­ing an­other.

Toy­ota in­sists on throw­ing money at cars pow­ered by hy­dro­gen tanks and fuel-cell tech­nol­ogy, which it be­gan de­vel­op­ing in the early 1990s. The Ja­panese car maker is look­ing more iso­lated as oth­ers grav­i­tate to­ward plugin elec­tric ve­hi­cles to ful­fil a vi­sion of zero-emis­sion cars, ac­cord­ing to a Bloomberg re­port on Tues­day.

Putting an even finer point on that iso­la­tion was Tues­day’s de­ci­sion by Mazda Mo­tor, a long­time Toy­ota part­ner, to is­sue its first 10-year bond in three decades in order to raise money for ar­eas such as elec­tric-car in­vest­ments.

A big rea­son Toy­ota’s prob­a­bly hold­ing on to fuel cells is out of loy­alty to Ja­pan, which in 2014 set goals to ac­cel­er­ate the de­vel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment of hy­dro­gen and fuel-cell tech­nol­ogy to meet the coun­try’s long-term en­ergy needs. Since then, the gov­ern­ment has spent more than US$1.2 bil­lion de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance (BNEF).

Ja­pan un­der­pinned its eco­nomic rise by build­ing in­dus­tries in­clud­ing ship­build­ing, elec­tric power, steel and tech­nol­ogy us­ing plans like the one it has pro­posed for hy­dro­gen. The gov­ern­ment’s so-called Hy­dro­gen So­ci­ety Roadmap, which was up­dated in March 2016, pledged to de­ploy 800,000 fuel-cell ve­hi­cles and con­struct 900 charg­ing sta­tions by 2030. But progress has been slow: only 2,300 fuel-cell ve­hi­cles and 91 sta­tions are on Ja­pan’s roads to­day, BNEF es­ti­mates.

And al­though Toy­ota re­mains loyal to the min­istry of econ­omy, trade and in­dus­try’s pro­gramme, other Ja­panese car mak­ers such as Honda have ac­knowl­edged that elec­tric ve­hi­cles (EV) will pro­lif­er­ate faster and are start­ing to re­di­rect in­vest­ment.

Hy­dro­gen has a cou­ple of ma­jor ad­van­tages over bat­tery-elec­tric. One cen­tres on en­ergy den­sity – the amount of power gen­er­ated from a given mass of fuel. That is one of the rea­sons the mar­itime in­dus­try is also in­ter­ested in the gas as a fuel.

Mar­itime Belge (CMB) has built the first com­mer­cial ship that runs on hy­dro­gen and pro­duces zero pol­lu­tion, tak­ing the world a step closer to cargo with­out emis­sions.

The Hy­droville pas­sen­ger shut­tle can op­er­ate on com­pressed hy­dro­gen as well as reg­u­lar fuel oil, ac­cord­ing to the Bel­gian com­pany. The ship was re­cently cer­ti­fied to op­er­ate as a seago­ing ves­sel by Lloyd’s Reg­is­ter. CMB will ex­pand the tech­nol­ogy to en­gines on cargo ships af­ter ini­tial test­ing, says Bloomberg’s Anna Hirten­stein.

Pol­lu­tion from the tril­lion-dol­lar ship­ping in­dus­try is still loosely reg­u­lated. While it is es­ti­mated to pro­duce as much as 3 per cent of the world’s emis­sions, it was not in­cluded in the 2015 Paris cli­mate agree­ment. Ships al­most al­ways burn heavy fuel oil, one of the dirt­i­est and cheap­est forms of en­ergy.

Over­sight on ship­ping emis­sions is about to change, how­ever, as the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­gan­i­sa­tion, a United Na­tions agency, is set to im­pose from 2020 strin­gent new rules that limit the amount of sul­phur emis­sions from ships. There are also talks about adding a car­bon tax.

While other forms of trans­porta­tion are lean­ing to­ward bat­ter­ies such as EVs and trucks, cargo ship­ping is sim­ply too en­ergy in­ten­sive for that to be an op­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Roy Campe, a re­search and de­vel­op­ment man­ager at CMB, even with the world’s big­gest bat­tery, a stan­dard cargo ship could not sail for more than a day. Av­er­age CMB voy­ages last two or three weeks, he points out.

While a petrol-pow­ered car can gen­er­ate around 30 mega­joules (MJ) from each kilo­gram of tank and fuel, bat­ter­ies barely clear 1MJ per kg, ac­cord­ing to a Royal Dutch Shell study. Hy­dro­gen does not achieve petrol-style den­si­ties but it does get closer.

That ex­plains why some crit­ics are scep­ti­cal of Tesla’s Semi truck and new Road­ster. With lithium-ion bat­ter­ies al­ready close to their the­o­ret­i­cal max­i­mum den­si­ties, in­creas­ing power out­put re­quires load­ing on more cells with di­min­ish­ing re­turns.

An­other touted ad­van­tage of hy­dro­gen is that ve­hi­cles can be re­fu­elled from a pump, rather than wait­ing the many hours it can take to fully recharge a bat­tery-pow­ered car. But since Ja­pan went down the hy­dro­gen path, recharge speeds – par­tic­u­larly for partcharg­ing at high-kilo­watt sta­tions like Tesla’s Su­per­charger net­work – have been fall­ing fast. As the cost of bat­ter­ies di­min­ishes and the num­ber of charg­ing sta­tions rises, hy­dro­gen-car be­liev­ers like Hyundai Mo­tor and Volk­swa­gen’s Audi have backed away.

Those won­der­ing where en­ergy com­pa­nies stand can fol­low the money: Shell’s acquisition of the elec­tric charg­ing op­er­a­tor NewMo­tion last month in­stantly gave it 30,000 EV charg­ing sta­tions. It only has a hand­ful of hy­dro­gen fill­ing sta­tions in Europe and Cal­i­for­nia, with plans to roll out 400 more in Ger­many by 2023.

Toy­ota says it is pur­su­ing bat­tery-elec­tric and fuel-cell bat­ter­ies “at the same speed” but di­rect­ing pre­cious in­vest­ment dol­lars into fuel-cell tech­nol­ogy while the rest of the in­dus­try wades deeper into EVs sug­gests its de­ci­sions are driven more by gov­ern­ment de­crees than mar­ket forces.

While go­ing against the grain can of­ten work in ar­eas such as stock-pick­ing, it sel­dom pre­vails for tech­nol­ogy that re­quires a net­work ef­fect, or economies of scale, to suc­ceed.

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