A liquid hydrogen tank towers over solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells at Panasonic’s Kusatsu plant in Japan as a bullet train speeds by in the background. Combined with the Tesla Megapack battery, the hydrogen and solar energy could provide enough electricity to power the site’s Ene-Farm fuel cell factory.
As bullet trains travel at 285 kilometers per hour, Panasonic’s Norihiko Kawamura looks up at Japan’s tallest hydrogen storage facility. The 14-meter structure sits on the tracks of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line outside the ancient capital of Kyoto, as well as multiple solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells and Tesla Megapack batteries. Energy sources can generate enough juice to run a portion of the production area using only renewable energy.
“This could be the largest hydrogen consumption area in Japan,” says Kawamura, manager of the device maker’s Smart Energy System Business Unit. “We estimate that it uses 120 tons of hydrogen per year. As Japan produces and imports more hydrogen in the future, this will be a very suitable type of plant.”
Sandwiched between a high-speed rail and a highway, Panasonic’s factory in Kusastsu, Shiga Prefecture covers an area of 52 hectares. It was originally built in 1969 to manufacture refrigerators, one of the “three treasures” of home appliances, along with televisions and washing machines.
Today, one corner of the plant is the H2 Kibou Area, a demonstration sustainable energy facility that opened in April. It consists of a 78,000-liter hydrogen fuel tank, a 495-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell array of 99 5-kW fuel cells, 570 kW and 1.1 megawatts of 1,820 photovoltaic solar panels arranged in an inverted “V” shape to capture the most sunlight. lithium-ion battery storage.
On one side of the H2 Kibou area, a large display shows in real time the amount of energy produced from the fuel cells and solar panels: 259 kW. About 80% of the energy produced comes from fuel cells and the rest from solar energy. Panasonic says the unit produces enough power to meet the needs of the site’s fuel cell factory – it has a peak power of about 680 kW and an annual usage of about 2.7 gigawatts. Panasonic believes this could be the template for the next generation of new, sustainable manufacturing.
“This is the first production site to use 100% renewable energy,” says Hiroshi Kinoshita of Panasonic’s Smart Energy System Business Unit. “We want to expand this solution towards creating a decarbonized society.”
The 495-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell array consists of 99 5-kW fuel cells. Panasonic says it is the first such site in the world to use hydrogen fuel cells to create a 100% renewable energy manufacturing plant.
An AI-powered Energy Management System (EMS) automatically controls on-site power generation by switching between solar and hydrogen to minimize the amount of electricity drawn from the local grid operator. For example, if it’s a sunny summer day and the fuel cell plant needs 600 kW of power, the EMS might decide on a mix of 300 kW of solar, 200 kW of hydrogen fuel cells, and 100 kW of batteries to prioritize solar panels. But on a cloudy day, it can minimize the solar component and power the hydrogen and battery cells, which are charged by fuel cells at night.
“The most important thing for greener production is an integrated energy system that includes renewable energy such as solar and wind, hydrogen, batteries, etc.,” says Takamichi Ochi, senior manager of climate change and energy at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting. “For this, the Panasonic example is close to an ideal power system.”
With gray hydrogen, it’s not quite green yet
H2 Kibou Area is not completely green. It depends on so-called gray hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas in a process that can release a lot of carbon dioxide. Once a week, tankers transport 20,000 liters of liquid hydrogen cooled to minus 250 Celsius, about 80 km from Osaka to Kusatsu. Japan has relied on countries such as Australia, which have more renewable energy resources, for hydrogen production. However, it cooperates with local supplier Iwatani Corporation Chevron Earlier this year, it opened a technology center near Osaka focused on the production of green hydrogen, created without the use of fossil fuels, to build 30 hydrogen fueling stations in California by 2026.
Another issue that slows down the adoption process is cost. Although electricity is relatively expensive in Japan, powering a plant with hydrogen currently costs much more than using power from the grid, but the company expects efforts by the Japanese government and industry to improve supply and distribution to significantly lower the cost of the element.
“We hope that the price of hydrogen will come down, so we can achieve something like 20 yen per cubic meter of hydrogen, and then we can achieve cost parity with the electricity grid,” Kawamura said.
Panasonic also expects that Japan’s efforts to become carbon-neutral by 2050 will boost demand for new energy products. Its fuel cell factory in Kusatsu has produced more than 200,000 Ene-Farm natural gas fuel cells for home use. Commercialized in 2009, the cells extract hydrogen from natural gas, react with oxygen to produce energy, heat and store hot water, and provide up to 500 watts of emergency electricity for eight days in the event of a disaster. Last year, it began selling a pure hydrogen version intended for commercial users. It wants to sell the fuel cells in the United States and Europe, as governments there take more aggressive hydrogen cost reduction measures than Japan. In 2021, the US Department of Energy launched a program called “Hydrogen Weight” that aims to reduce the price of pure hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram over 10 years.
Panasonic does not yet plan to scale up the H2 Kibou Field, but wants 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 so that it’s ready when the price of hydrogen comes down. Our message is this: If we want to have 100% renewable energy in 2030, then we’re going to have 2030- We should start with something like this now, not in 2016.”