Toyota Motor and the Japanese government had hoped the 2020 Olympic games of 2021 would be remembered as the hydrogen Olympics – as a showcase for hydrogen as the clean fuel of the future and a signal to the world that a fading Japan had, after decades of economic stagnation, found its mojo once again.

The Tokyo Games “will leave a hydrogen society as its legacy,” the city’s governor promised in 2016, as reported in The Globe and Mail.

Nothing of the sort came out of the Games.

Jeremy Cato with the 2020 Toyota Mirai

Instead, the COVID Olympics was largely a bust for Japan and for Toyota. As the Games wrapped, Japan’s prime minister found his poll ratings at an all-time low. COVID infections in Japan were surging and the fleet of hydrogen-powered buses expected to ferry athletes, workers and the media had been replaced by diesel transport.

The hydrogen society failed to emerge as an Olympic legacy for a long list of predictable reasons, among them, the Globe notes, as of the end of 2020, Japan had just 137 hydrogen filling stations in operation. For the entire country.

Still, we should give credit to Toyota for doggedly arguing that hydrogen is the future of clean energy transportation despite the lack of tangible evidence. Indeed, Toyota had hoped that by supplying 500 hydrogen fuel-cell cars to the Olympic transportation fleet, the world would see the promise of hydrogen come to life. But who among you saw even one fuel cell vehicle doing Olympic work? Did you see one in the background while you were watching events on TV. Did even one reporter zero in on the usefulness and cleanliness of hydrogen vehicles? Did a single athlete wax eloquently about the joys of riding in clean transport?

Nonetheless, Japan is sticking to its goal of putting 800,000 fuel cell cars on the road by 2030, with investments of more than $1 billion this year alone to support, promote and subsidize hydrogen technology, reports the Globe. That’s quite the stretch goal. Despite years of pushing hydrogen, just 4,000 fuel-cell cars are on the road in Japan today.

And now, with the Tokyo Olympic torch barely extinguished, a new peer-reviewed study has cast more doubt on the future of the hydrogen as the clean energy solution of the future.

“To call it (hydrogen) a zero-emissions fuel is totally wrong,” Robert W. Howarth, a biogeochemist and ecosystem scientist at Cornell and the study’s lead author, tells The New York Times. “What we found is that it’s not even a low-emissions fuel, either.”

What? Hydrogen isn’t a “green” source of energy?

Howarth and Mark Jacobson, himself a civil and environmental engineering professor at California’s Stanford University, found that most hydrogen used today is extracted from natural gas. The energy-intensive extraction process releases plenty of carbon dioxide and methane.

Even when carbon capture technologies are uses to create so-called “blue hydrogen,” the result, notes The Times, is the “fuel still emits more across its entire supply chain than simply burning natural gas, according to the paper, published Thursday in the Energy Science & Engineering journal by researchers from Cornell and Stanford Universities.”

Toyota, Honda Motor and Hyundai Motor continue to insist that there is a future for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles – from passenger cars to even cargo ships and perhaps trains, too. Toyota has recently launched the second-generation version of its Mirai fuel cell car, as a show of support for the hydrogen society, in fact.

Perhaps one day the hydrogen economy will emerge as the reality promised for Tokyo 2020, despite the failures of 2021.

Perhaps we’ll see a legion of smart inventors, scientists and engineers devise clever, efficient and cheap ways to produce and distribute truly green hydrogen to cars, trains, trucks and ships all over the world.

And perhaps those various forms of transport running on hydrogen fuel cells will turn out to be cheap, reliable and widely available, with hydrogen filling stations dotting the global landscape like so many diesel and gasoline pumps today.

Or perhaps hydrogen will forever remain a niche energy source that works only for very specific applications, and is frequently tapped by stock promoters looking to make a quick buck on hope and hype – stock promoters often aided, wittingly or unwittingly, by government officials in search of the promise of a quick fix to the climate problem.

I’d bet on the latter.

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