Before the devastating earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan in spring 2011, the nation of Japan was one hundred percent behind the shift towards all-electric cars. As a consequence, Japan has one of the best DC rapid charging infrastructures for electric cars anywhere in the world.
After the events of spring 2011 however, the Japanese government — led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and encouraged by Toyota and Honda — has shifted its attention away from electric cars towards hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The reason given? In the event of another major disaster, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can be used as emergency backup power stations without the same emissions problems as a gasoline-powered generator or the energy density limitations of battery packs. And although electric cars and their own battery backup capabilities remain the preferred vehicles for city dwellers, hydrogen fuel cell technology is being pushed as the preferred solution for more remote locations, where communities could be off the grid for weeks after a mega quake.
To facilitate this transition and to help automakers like Toyota and Honda bring their first production hydrogen fuel cell cars to market, Shinzo Abe’s Government has committed billions of yen to hydrogen fuel cell incentive programs for individuals and businesses alike, vowed to support the installation of hundreds of refuelling stations across the nation, as well as relax strict regulations concerning the installation of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.
But as Bloomberg reported over the weekend however, the Japanese Government’s plans for leading the world’s deployment of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is hitting an unexpected roadblock: the wheels of bureaucracy.
As Bloomberg explains, while Prime Minister Abe announced a long time ago that he wanted his government to relax planning regulations for hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, the process of redefining those regulations, specifically for small-size hydrogen filling stations, is still ongoing more than three years after it began.
In short, the Japanese Government is tripping over its own feet. And as long as that continues, neither the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan nor the Honda Clarity FCV will be practical cars to own.
“We are very confused and baffled by the slowness and difficulty of the regulation review,” explained Naoya Toida, Honda’s general manager at its Smart Community Planning Office. “The regulation is strengthening rather than easing.”
Previous regulations required high-pressure hydrogen filling stations to be six meters away from public spaces, and the fuel itself had to be stored in steel or nonferrous metal storage containers. Meanwhile, the fuel itself had to be stored as compressed hydrogen. Guidelines issued last year by the Japanese government called for the relaxation of the six-meter rule, allowing the use of composite storage tanks, using pre-cooling equipment to speed up the refuelling process and allowing the use of liquified hydrogen as a raw material for the first time.
Those regulations however, apply only to large-scale hydrogen refuelling stations, and currently only apply to a handful of installations around Japan. Rules governing smaller refuelling stations — which will form the backbone of the majority of Japan’s proposed hydrogen infrastructure — have yet to be agreed upon. And that’s something of a major headache for pro-hydrogen companies.
In addition to shelving their own plans for producing and installing hydrogen filling stations, Toyota and Honda are finding that regional governments are extremely reluctant to invest in either filling stations for hydrogen cars or new hydrogen vehicle fleets until the national standards for small scale filling stations have been defined.
Bloomberg says that there are as many as 100 different local governments around Japan which have held off such a decision. Many had shown initial interest in a special small-scale refuelling station developed by Honda for use with its recently-launched 2016 Clarity Fuel Cell Sedan — but until those regulations are in place, most are reluctant to commit. Consequently, only two of Honda’s Smart Hydrogen Stations — one in a suburb north of Tokyo and one in a city in southern Japan — are in service at the current time.
With Toyota, Honda, and the Japanese Government all major stakeholders in the success of the hydrogen fuel infrastructure, it’s likely that all three will do what it takes to bring small-scale hydrogen filling stations to market. But with an entirely new infrastructure to build, the process is likely to still encounter some unforeseen hiccups before it is truly ready for mass-market adoption.
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