The Tokyo 2020 Olympics: An Opening Ceremony for the Hydrogen Economy

Japan is betting big on hydrogen in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics. Will this be the moment that hydrogen proves itself to be a viable solution to the energy challenges of the 21st century?

For nearly 200 years, scientists have preoccupied themselves with the idea of using hydrogen as a fuel source. In 1800, British scientists William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle invented the process of electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen gas using an electrical current) and in 1845 the fuel cell effect (essentially a reverse reaction to electrolysis) was discovered by swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schoenbein.

Following World War I, in his essay titled Daedalus, the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane made this rather prophetic forecast of our future energy system:

“Ultimately we shall have to tap those intermittent but inexhaustible sources of power, the wind and the sunlight. The problem is simply one of storing their energy…The country will be covered with rows of metallic windmills working electric motors…during windy weather the surplus power will be used for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen.”

Haldane is evidence that even a century ago, the potential of hydrogen as a renewable fuel source was recognized. In theory, it checks all the boxes: Not only can it be produced using carbon free energy, but it can also be stored in theoretically limitless quantities. It also can be combined with CO2 to produce “drop-in” synthetic methane compatible with existing natural gas infrastructure, and it can be transported through pipeline or in compressed vessels. In practice, however, the technology has consistently proven to be too expensive for mass adoption.

In recent decades, the promise of cost-efficient, zero-carbon hydrogen fuel has failed to materialize, and pragmatic policy-makers and business leaders have opted to favor other forms of energy storage, namely electro-chemical batteries. However, over the last few years as lithium batteries continue to present scalability and long-term storage challenges, there is seemingly a resurgence of interest in pursuing Haldane’s vision for our global energy future.

One country that envision a future hydrogen economy is Japan, where hydrogen is expected to play a prominent role at the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics. Questions remain, however, about whether or not the technology will be ready for its big debut.  

Nearly four years ago, Tokyo’s former governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, announced that just as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics left a legacy of bullet trains snaking across the country, the 2020 Olympics would leave a hydrogen society. The goals of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government include not only putting 40,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV’s), 100 fuel cell buses, and 160 hydrogen fueling stations on Tokyo’s roads by next summer, but also powering the Olympic village with hydrogen produced by a new solar-powered electrolysis plant in Fukushima prefecture. Other related projects include a hotel that says it is the first to be partially powered by hydrogen made from recycled waste plastic, Toyota preparing to start mass production of its second-generation Mirai FCV, and several efforts to import hydrogen from abroad in order to meet growing demand.

If achieved, the 2020 targets for Tokyo would indeed leave a transformational legacy, and would place Japan as the undisputed leader in hydrogen technology. Even if the city falls far short of its ambitious 2020 targets—something many analysists are already predicting—Japan’s vision for the Olympics already constitutes the largest bet on hydrogen fuel the world has ever seen.

Come July 2020, while viewers around the world watch the world’s greatest athletes perform historic feats of strength, skill, and endurance; the energy industry will be eyeing a different kind of history in the making. Will Tokyo finally prove to the world that clean, reliable, and scalable hydrogen production is a viable answer to the energy challenges of the 21st century? Or will this effort reaffirm the conclusions of the last several decades, that sustainable hydrogen is just too expensive?

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.