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Monday, April 12, 2021

Can Japan innovate its means out of a local weather and vitality disaster?

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When worldwide delegates gathered in Kyoto in late 1997 to hammer out the ultimate particulars of a hard-fought local weather deal, they have been greeted with a be aware of encouragement by the town’s kindergarteners. “Kyoto persons are praying for the success of this convention,’’ they wrote. ‘’The way forward for all individuals, particularly the youngsters, relies upon largely on the end result.’’

The youngsters who cheered on the Kyoto protocol are virtually 30 years outdated right now, however Japan, like a lot of the developed nations who signed as much as it, remains to be struggling to chop its emissions of greenhouse gases. The truth is, Japan’s reliance on fossil fuels is even higher now than it was earlier than the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe a decade in the past.

Japan’s failure to scale back its dependence on coal by pushing more durable into clear photo voltaic, hydro and wind energy within the post-Fukushima period has prompted a defensive, if correct, response: photo voltaic panels, dams and wind generators could be troublesome to put in, given Japan’s geography and terrain.

However in December the tone shifted dramatically when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga set out a “inexperienced development technique” that might result in Japan’s web emissions dropping to zero by 2050.

The mooted plans lengthen even past Japan’s borders. Suga’s administration might lastly announce in April that it’s going to finish Japan’s monetary assist for constructing new coal-fired energy vegetation in south-east Asia and different international locations, in response to a Nikkei report final week.

Even environmentalists who’ve been vital of the federal government’s insurance policies are inspired. “I’m very cautiously optimistic,” stated Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Renewable Vitality Institute. “I’ve to say that Suga-san is extra severe about local weather change [than Shinzo Abe, his predecessor].”

A few of Japan’s most vital firms have been extra alarmed than impressed, nevertheless.

One side of the inexperienced technique instantly seized the eye of Japan’s highly effective automotive trade: new gasoline-powered autos are to be utterly changed by “electrified” automobiles by the mid-2030s.

A uncommon public criticism of the federal government got here from none apart from Akio Toyoda, Toyota Motor’s president. “There’s a threat that the automotive trade’s enterprise mannequin might collapse,” he warned.

Amongst Toyoda’s principal arguments is that Japan won’t be able to provide sufficient clear electrical energy to energy all automobiles until the nation will get busy constructing new vegetation, and rapidly. Nuclear energy might generate a lot of this electrical energy with out producing greenhouse gases, however it remained unpopular within the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe.

But for all of the obstacles, some observers see the clear vitality push as a chance for Japan to regain its repute as an innovator.

Japan has been a laggard within the digital economic system, prompting years of soul-searching about whether or not the nation has misplaced its edge. However the nascent inexperienced vitality expertise trade that requires the sort of superior engineering abilities and long-term funding that the nation is thought for offers recent hope. The optimists imagine that inexperienced vitality might give Japan Inc a brand new narrative — and a strong new supply of exports.

“The web, digitisation and the app economic system have pushed innovation for the final 20 years, however they haven’t solved dire points like world warming,” stated Sota Nagano, a associate at Tokyo-based enterprise capital agency Abies Ventures. “These options require one thing popping out of a lab — engineering or precise science.”

Nagano famous that Japan had been supporting fundamental analysis in new supplies, robotics and different “deep tech” for many years by way of Nedo (New Vitality and Industrial Know-how Growth Group), a authorities physique that subsidises work on new vitality and cutting-edge industrial expertise.

“Now the federal government is pushing nationwide universities to monetise patents and analysis in supplies, quantum computing, mechanical engineering,” stated Nagano. “All of it provides as much as contributing to this inexperienced vitality plan. Lots of the priceless property in Japan haven’t been monetised but.”

Japan has made two daring long-term bets on inexperienced expertise. One is its push to show hydrogen right into a mainstream gas for automobiles, vehicles and electrical energy technology. The opposite is on a brand new sort of electric car battery that guarantees to be way more environment friendly than the lithium-ion fashions that energy Teslas and different electrical autos on the street right now.

“Hydrogen and strong state batteries are the areas that Japanese firms have been specializing in as a aggressive benefit,” stated Kota Yuzawa, a Goldman Sachs analyst in Tokyo who follows the auto trade.

He believes the latest inexperienced push by Japan, along with efforts by China and the Biden administration, will quickly speed up the transfer to electrical autos globally. Toyota has been engaged on the battery expertise often called advanced solid state for greater than a decade, and it plans to roll out a prototype this yr.

Reality field: Stable-state battery

Stable-state batteries have been the main focus of start-ups over the previous decade however should not but capable of be produced at scale. The cells use a strong electrolyte reasonably than a liquid one, as in most typical lithium-ion batteries. Additionally they include a lithium metallic anode reasonably than a graphite one, which permits the battery to retailer extra vitality. Challenges to huge manufacturing embody stability and materials prices.

Toyota claims its battery can energy a visit of 500km on one cost, or about twice the space for typical electrical automobiles right now. The batteries are smaller and don’t require any cooling system, permitting extra legroom within the automotive, and should not vulnerable to catching hearth as can occur with lithium batteries. Stable-state batteries would additionally be capable of totally recharge in 10 minutes.

“It’s extra just like the time it takes a gasoline engine on the filling station,” Yuzawa stated.

There are issues, nevertheless. Chief amongst them is the potential of leaks of sulphide gasoline, which is toxic. And the price of making solid-state batteries might be larger than lithium ones till they are often mass produced.

Though Japan has a giant presence within the electrical car battery market — Panasonic makes batteries for Tesla — it’s far behind China, which has spared no expense pursuing an ambition to dominate it.

Japan has sought to counter this by encouraging the event of the solid-state batteries, which it hopes will ultimately change into the usual. However the timeframes are lengthy: a viable product shouldn’t be anticipated till the second half of this decade.

A lot nearer is the prospect of automobiles working on hydrogen, the gas supply that could be a cornerstone of Japan’s plan for a carbon-neutral future however has main automotive trade detractors. Toyota launched the primary business hydrogen car, the Mirai (“future” in Japanese), in 2014. The second mannequin of the Mirai got here out in December 2020. The Mirai runs on a hydrogen-powered “gas cell” that doesn’t emit CO2 and could be rapidly refilled at a roadside station.

However hydrogen has the drawbacks of storage and distribution, requiring excessive strain, in addition to at the moment being costly to provide by way of electrolysis utilizing inexperienced vitality sources. Tesla founder Elon Musk calls them “idiot cells” and has stated hydrogen-powered automobiles are a “mindbogglingly silly” thought, whereas VW has roundly dismissed its prospects for passenger automobiles.

Even when rival automotive trade leaders are proper about hydrogen automobiles, Goldman Sachs’ Yuzawa believes it’s nonetheless price investing within the expertise. “While you consider a heavy-duty [cargo] truck, it must carry a heavy lithium battery all the best way. So, hydrogen is a extra environment friendly strategy to transfer giant cargo throughout lengthy distances.”

FT Collection: Hydrogen — Fantasy or gas of the long run?

Lengthy heralded as a substitute for fossil fuels, can the gasoline actually assist remedy the world’s dirtiest vitality issues?

Ohbayashi believes that hydrogen could have a task to play in reaching the zero web emissions objective, however that it’s extra vital that the federal government deal with renewable vitality reminiscent of wind, photo voltaic and geothermal. On the time of the Fukushima catastrophe, she notes, renewables accounted for 10 per cent of Japan’s electrical energy combine. Now it’s about 20 per cent.

“The pattern of accelerating renewables may be very speedy,” she stated. “If now we have the fitting insurance policies in place, I believe renewables may even attain 50 per cent of the nation’s electrical energy wants by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050. However we want the federal government to set these excessive targets and encourage the market.”

Her view that Japan may very well be powered completely by renewables shouldn’t be extensively shared in authorities or trade, the place many are hoping for a revival of the nuclear trade, together with its energy minister Hiroshi Kajiyama, who informed the Monetary Occasions this yr that nuclear was key to assembly its vitality targets.

But it surely does seize a renewed sense that Japan, with few vitality sources of its personal, is able to ending its dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Together with a authorities and trade dedication to modern engineering, it displays additionally a hope that the Kyoto kindergarteners of the late Nineties will see the world they envisioned by the point they’re 60.

Comply with @ftclimate on Instagram

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