If there is an authority on the use of hydrogen to fuel vehicles in a more efficient way, that is Katsuhiko Hirose. The Japanese veteran was a strategic partner at Toyota during more than 30 years and continues to work closely with the chairman of the council of the Nipponic manufacturer, Takeshi Uchiyamada. Guest Professor at Kyushu University, Hirose has a long career in the development of technologies for the automobile industry, with a special focus on hybrid cars. He is also one of the main figures involved in the creation of the Hydrogen Council that include big companies such as Shell, Toyota and Hyundai, and firmly believes in the fundamental role that the hydrogen combustion cells will have for a more sustainable mobility. The goal: total decarburization of economy.
Which issues would you like to see talked in the industry?
In mobility, people are only talking about hydrogen or electric batteries. But, if we look at the world global tendencies, in order to achieve decarburization towards a sustainable society, it’s necessary to use sustainable energies for the future. Automatically, that means to increasingly use renewable energy and also optimize the use of fossil fuel. Fossil fuel is still very important and will continue to be for a while. In order to do that, hydrogen is becoming much more important. The question is not only hydrogen or electricity, but how to optimize the use of both renewable energy and fossil fuel to reach a sustainable society of low carbon.
When is that going to happen?
We are already starting to see its beginning. Many people recognize that to use more renewable energy such as wind or solar power, storage and conversion is also necessary. The industry cannot work only with electric energy. For example, a metal plant needs chemicals to transform the material.
Do you believe that in the future, all cars will be fuelled by hydrogen or will there be a mix of energy sources?
The most probable scenario is that the small passenger car will be purely electric, with electric batteries. But buses, trains and planes, no. Because transportation doesn’t only mean passenger cars. Transportation needs to be decarbonized, something that can happen only through large storage provided by hydrogen. Smaller and cheaper cars can be competitive with electric or mixed batteries, with hydrogen. Nonetheless, during some time, fossil fuel with hybrid technology – which part of the industry calls electrified vehicle, although that terminology should not be used – will be most of the cases. For long distances, for example trucks, synthetic or hydrogen fuel will be the case. That is my vision of the future.
Why is hydrogen better?
Soon, hydrogen will be much more popular because of its optimization of the use of energy. In order to use renewable sources, energy storage must be done with some type of chemicals, because electric batteries cannot store big quantities of energy. The total amount of energy used in a city such as Amsterdam or Berlin is big, and to be provided by wind or solar power sources a huge storage system as backup is needed. That cannot be reached through batteries, but hydrogen can allow it. I participated in a conference in Groningen, in The Netherlands [Wind Meets Gas], a city famous for producing natural gas, that will soon start to transit its production due to earthquakes. They are thinking more seriously about the future: how to use an existing infrastructure such as a gas pipeline? They will use wind energy to produce hydrogen and provide it through the existing gas pipelines. It’s a very interesting transition. They will also use deep underground material to store hydrogen.
Is it cheaper than other forms of storage?
Yes, that is the issue, because they are using pre-existing infrastructures. There are other examples in the north of Germany, England and the US.
From the ground to the sky, do you believe that “flying taxies” will become a reality and that they will use hydrogen?
Yes. If you think about drones with electric batteries, their autonomy reach is about 50 to 70 kilometres. How do they charge at the end of each trip? If they have a capacity of 50Km, that mean that its limited to 20 or 30 km per ride. That is, it’s not enough even to be used between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, because its more than 30 or 40km. Besides the issue of distance, hydrogen will provide a much more purified fuel for these drones.
How does this align with the vision of autonomous driving?
That is yet another path that the industry is taking, with electrified cars or drones. But that doesn’t mean that the battery will be electric. Hydrogen allows more storage and energy. They walk together.
Do you consider that governments will have to take an extra step so to make this transition happen, since consumers are not that available to abandon gas fuelled cars?
Well, that’s a big problem. Hydrogen is a technology that allows to provide decarbonized automobile mobility, but consumers don’t care. Basically, consumers are interested in convenience, comfort and performance, besides price. At the same time, companies are interested in decreasing emissions. I think that the industry is moving ahead of consumers. If governments start imposing a proper carbon tax, that will help incentivise consumers to use a cheaper source of energy. It’s a question that I want to ask the audience of the Portugal Mobi Summit. Decarbonisation energy already exists; it’s just a matter of how to combine the benefit for society and for individuals.
Nonetheless, one also has to deal with part of the industry lobby that is not interested in transitioning. How can the political issue be overcome, seen for example, in the decision of the federal government of the United States of loosening the limits of emissions imposed in states such as California?
I don’t see it like that. I am in the industry and I see that preference is given towards having a proper policy that leads to decarbonisation. Customers care more with prices than with decarbonisation. If governments implement a proper policy, that will be preferable to the industry point of view. I met with several energy companies and they do have a strategy in sight, such as a tax on emissions. Maybe those people that surround president Trump believe in an older vision, that fossil fuel is cheaper, but the industry is already moving towards decarbonisation. Strategists and lobbyists are also changing their strategy for a larger use of renewable energy in industrial infrastructures. Of course, if one looks only for the cheapest source of energy, that still continues to be natural gas in the US. But if they do an analysis, low cost is not always preferable for the economy; renewable sources incentivize investment.
Transportation (bus or naval) needs to decarbonize, something than can only be achieved through large storage provided by hydrogen.
The new tendencies on mobility as a service will lead people to buy fewer cars and to use more shared services. How is that going to affect manufacturers?
That will happen, but in a different way. Sharing rides and cars will be part of the change. I see that people use Uber in San Francisco, New York or other cities for different reasons. Transition is not well understood. Truth is that people want private, comfortable and door-to-door mobility. In New York, most of Uber clients come from public transportation, they where not people who previously owned cars. In San Francisco yes, people stopped using cars to use Uber. The company that offers the mobility that people want to use will be the winner in mobility services, but not in the format that its being anticipated now.
What type of customer will continue to use private cars?
In many parts of the world, including the US, that will continue. These stereotypes that we see about what the future will be are coming from people who are living in New York, San Francisco or Tokyo. It’s completely different from the areas where most people live. I live in the outskirts of Nagoya, a big city where if you go to work or to school, the train works perfectly, but if you want to go shopping or meet friends you need a car.
And will that continue in the future?
Yes, with an appropriate mixture of means. Private cars can be used at any time. In some places, having a car is an obstacle: a big city such as Tokyo or San Francisco, parking is more expensive than the car itself. In those places, ride sharing makes complete sense. If one needs to go further, then it doesn’t.
Have you been noticing an increase in clean energy cars due to the alarming news that the United Nations are giving on the climatic crisis and the activism of people such as Greta Thunberg?
I think so. Just look at the implementation of the [Toyota] Prius. Leonardo Di Caprio changed mentalities he made hybrid cars cool. People drive the Prius not because they spend less, but because they want to contribute for a better environment. That became something cool. The media will have a major role in changing the world in this sense. Do people want to contribute for a better future or save money now? That’s the question to be asked.
At the end of the day, it’s the customer that has to decide to buy or not a car with cleaner energy sources.
Yes. In the economy one can assume that people always chose the cheapest option, but that is not true, because it doesn’t explain why some buys a Lexus or a Mercedes instead of a Yaris. To go from one point to the other, a small car is enough, and one cannot arrive faster with a different car because of speed limits and traffic. Therefore, economy shows that people are available to pay more if they can, but they need a reason to do so. We still need some ideas to convince people how they can contribute to the future. We cannot afford not to do so.
What message will you want to leave at the Portugal Mobi Summit?
The main message is that hydrogen will have a very important role in the future. I am also thinking about a surprise: a different way of thinking about mobility.
Ana Rita Guerra | Text