Q&A: Building a hydrogen society with Panasonic

Yoana Cholteeva 16 December 2019 (Last Updated December 17th, 2019 17:28)

Hydrogen has been gaining popularity as an energy source with the potential to play a key role in building a clean, secure and affordable power future. Yoana Cholteeva sat down with Panasonic’s European CEO Junichi Suzuki and marketing director Max Fujita to talk about the company’s sustainability projects and the value of hydrogen.

Q&A: Building a hydrogen society with Panasonic
Max Fujita and Junichi Suzuki. Source Panasonic

Yoana Cholteeva (YC): What was the inspiration to begin a hydrogen initiative at Panasonic?

Max Fujita (MF): Originally, this idea came on request from the Japanese government, at the time no one talked about a hydrogen society and the government thought about ways to utilise clean technology. So, in 1999 Panasonic started research and development with some funding from the Japanese government. With this technology we had to use natural gas as a primary energy and we took on the hydrogen initiative.

YC: As part of this initiative  you are trying to achieve a hydrogen society by 2030. Could you tell me why this is so important within that timeframe?

MF: In different European countries, different governments try to reduce emissions according to the Paris protocol. And so, in comparison, for example, in the regular gas burning type of heating and electricity generating industry a household of four people would save per year 1.3 tons, so if you imagine a football stadium being a forest, half of the football stadium can be saved per year as a forest in terms of carbon emissions by just using fuel cells instead of gas heating.

For our primary energy we still use natural gas, but with the upcoming introduction of the pure hydrogen cell, people will be able to mainly rely on hydrogen in the future.

YC: What are the main benefits of hydrogen?

MF: Hydrogens’ benefits are recognised not only in Europe, but worldwide as well, every country focussed on the carbon society is interested in how to produce clean electric power and that’s why many countries invest a lot in renewable electric power.

Ultimately, hydrogen is obtained in splitting up water into hydrogen and oxygen. You can also use that here around the UK as there’s lots of offshore wind, but then sometimes you have too much wind and sometimes you have no wind. This is where you have extra energy that usually costs the electricity company to put it away in order not to collapse into hydrogen. In this case, they use the hydrogen when there’s no wind and have this kind of stable and actually very cost effective way of balancing supply instead of using lithium ion batteries. You can also utilise this type of energy to balance the grid in case of shortage.

YC: Are there any disadvantages to using hydrogen, for example its storage cost?

MF: So we didn’t forecast for this when we started the initiative because we are an end point hardware industry and the production, storage, and distribution was a city, government and energy suppliers’ responsibility.

In the UK we participate in a project discussion about a Scotland project in the city of Aberdeen and they consider using green hydrogen alongside an offshore wind turbine.

Today when you pump water up a hill using surplus energy, and then let it run down through the turbines and then generate the energy, what you do with that kind of energy is similar to the offshore wind where you can have split water, into h2 for the hydrogen to be used, and let the oxygen go. So this is kind of similar effort, by the time you use the surplus energy, you store it in and you use it up. And we also talk a lot about the decentralised approach versus the centralised approach. Of course, this also adds a lot of questions to the utility industry. So how much of the next hydrogen generation will be part of the centralised industry?

YC: You partnered with European manufacturer Viessmann to create fuel cell systems for the residential market, how do you benefit from this partnership?

MF: So, Panasonic has technology to make some fuel cell modules, but in Europe the heating demand in residential homes is rather high and Panasonic doesn’t produce its own boiler technology.

So in Europe we deliver the pure hydrogen fuel cell unit and our partner Viessman takes care of the boiler together with heating system as a package. So,  its a joint development offer to the end customer.

YC: Panasonic made household fuel cells commercially available for the Japanese market in 2009? Does the technology have the potential to spread to other countries?

MF: Yes, in 2009 we launched the first fuel self-heating system in Japanand from the very beginning we considered how to make an improvement and cost reduction and for example, every two years, we introduce a new promo which changes.

And in Europe together with Viessman once again we’ve introduced the fuel cell since 2014, starting from Germany and the UK. Currently, we are working with the Netherlands. Altogether, we’ve reached seven European countries so far and we believe there’s potential to spread to other countries in the following years.

YC: You are also planning to launch a Pure Hydrogen Fuel Cell in 2021, could you tell me a bit more about this project?

Junichi Suzuki (JS): Yes, we are starting next year in Tokyo for the national Paralympic games, we installed 30 kilowatt pure hydrogen fuel cell, and a five kilowatt ones in parallel connection for a public space to power something bigger like loudspeakers or announcements boards.

(Also) currently we are working in the UK and the city of Aberdeen as they are planning to start a hydrogen community by 2024-2025 and we aim to bring the pure hydrogen together with Viessman. The main challenge we’ve got is reinforcing robustness and longer lifetime, as well as bringing the cost down.

As Europe has a clear vision to decarbonise the environment, our mission is to contribute to this. And one debate is how to reduce the carbon emissions for the household heating system. There are several areas that we are currently working on and hydrogen is one of the most important things that can further contribute for the decarbonisation of European society. Therefore, we like to focus on this cooperation and in the upcoming years.