As a bullet train speeds by in the background, a liquid hydrogen tank towers over solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells at Panasonic’s Kusatsu plant in Japan. Combined with a Tesla Megapack storage battery, the hydrogen and solar can deliver enough electricity to power the site’s Ene-Farm fuel cell factory.
As bullet trains whiz by at 285 kilometers per hour, Panasonic’s Norihiko Kawamura looks over Japan’s tallest hydrogen storage tank. The 14-meter structure looms over the Tokaido Shinkansen Line tracks outside the ancient capital of Kyoto, as well as a large array of solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells and Tesla Megapack storage batteries. The power sources can generate enough juice to run part of the manufacturing site using renewable energy only.
“This may be the biggest hydrogen consumption site in Japan,” says Kawamura, a manager at the appliance maker’s Smart Energy System Business Division. “We estimate using 120 tons of hydrogen a year. As Japan produces and imports more and more hydrogen in the future, this will be a very suitable kind of plant.”
Sandwiched between a high-speed railway and highway, Panasonic’s factory in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, is a sprawling 52 hectare site. It was originally built in 1969 to manufacture goods including refrigerators, one of the “three treasures” of household appliances, along with TVs and washing machines, that Japanese coveted as the country rebuilt after the devastation of World War II.
Today, one corner of the plant is the H2 Kibou Field, a demonstration sustainable power facility that started operations in April. It consists of a 78,000-liter hydrogen fuel tank, a 495 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell array made up of 99 5kW fuel cells, 570kW from 1,820 photovoltaic solar panels arranged in an inverted “V” shape to catch the most sunlight, and 1.1 megawatts of lithium-ion battery storage.
On one side of the H2 Kibou Field, a large display indicates the amount of power being produced in real time from fuel cells and solar panels: 259kW. About 80% of the power generated is estimated to come from fuel cells annually, with solar accounting for the rest. Panasonic says the facility produces enough power to meet the needs of the site’s fuel cell factory — it has peak power of about 680kW and annual usage of some 2.7 gigawatts. Panasonic thinks it can be a template for the next generation of new, sustainable manufacturing.
“This is the first manufacturing site of its kind that aims at using 100% renewable energy,” says Hiroshi Kinoshita of Panasonic’s Smart Energy System Business Division. “We want to expand this solution towards the creation of a decarbonized society.”
An artificial intelligence-equipped Energy Management System (EMS) automatically controls on-site power generation, switching between solar and hydrogen, to minimize the amount of electricity purchased from the local grid operator. For example, if it’s a sunny summer day and the fuel cell factory needs 600kW, the EMS might prioritize the solar panels, deciding on a mixture of 300kW solar, 200 kW hydrogen fuel cells, and 100kW storage batteries. On a cloudy day, however, it might minimize the solar component, and boost the hydrogen and storage batteries, which are recharged at night by the fuel cells.
The 495kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell array is made up of 99 5KW fuel cells. Panasonic says it’s the world’s first site of its kind to use hydrogen fuel cells with the aim of creating a manufacturing plant running on 100% renewable energy.
“The most important thing to make manufacturing greener is an integrated energy system including renewable energy such as solar and wind, hydrogen, batteries and so on,” says Takamichi Ochi, a senior manager for climate change and energy at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting. “To do that, the Panasonic example is close to an ideal energy system.”
With grey hydrogen, not totally green yet
The H2 Kibou Field is not totally green. It depends on so-called grey hydrogen, which is generated from natural gas in a process that can release a lot of carbon dioxide. Tankers haul 20,000 liters of hydrogen, chilled in liquid form to minus 250 Celsius, from Osaka to Kusatsu, a distance of some 80 km, about once a week. Japan has relied on countries like Australia, which has greater supplies of renewable energy, for hydrogen production. But local supplier Iwatani Corporation, which partnered with Chevron earlier this year to build 30 hydrogen fueling sites in California by 2026, has opened a technology center near Osaka that is focused on producing green hydrogen, which is created without the use of fossil fuels.
Another issue that is slowing adoption is cost. Even though electricity is relatively expensive in Japan, it currently costs much more to power a plant with hydrogen than using power from the grid, but the company expects Japanese government and industry efforts to improve supply and distribution will make the element significantly cheaper.
“Our hope is that hydrogen cost will go down, so we can achieve something like 20 yen per cubic meter of hydrogen, and then we will be able to achieve cost parity with the electrical grid,” Kawamura said.
Panasonic is also anticipating that Japan’s push to become carbon-neutral by 2050 will boost demand for new energy products. Its fuel cell factory at Kusatsu has churned out over 200,000 Ene-Farm natural gas fuel cell for home use. Commercialized in 2009, the cells extract hydrogen from natural gas, generate power by reacting it with oxygen, heat and store hot water, and deliver up to 500 watts of emergency power for eight days in a disaster. Last year, it began selling a pure hydrogen version targeted at commercial users. It wants to sell the fuel cells in the U.S. and Europe because governments there have more aggressive hydrogen cost-cutting measures than Japan. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a so-called Hydrogen Shot program that aims to slash the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per 1 kilogram over 10 years.
Panasonic doesn’t plan to increase the scale of its H2 Kibou Field for the time being, wanting to see other companies and factories adopt similar energy systems.
It won’t necessarily make economic sense today, Kawamura says, “but we want to start something like this so it will be ready when the cost of hydrogen falls. Our message is: if we want to have 100% renewable energy in 2030, then we must start with something like this now, not in 2030.”
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