On December 8, the Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun ran a story about the future of coal-fired electricity generation in Japan. The story touched on topics ranging from the plumbing in a Chugoku Electric generating station to the Trump administration’s idiosyncratic approach to environmental diplomacy. And it contained this sentence: “Ammonia can become a ‘savior’ of coal-fired power.”
Clearly an explanation is in order.
Japan faced the threat of major electricity shortages when it shut down its nuclear generating stations in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011. In the short-term, the country avoided blackouts via a concerted program of national energy conservation. In the mid-term, Japanese utilities are adding to their coal-fired generating capacity, with 49 plants scheduled to come on line over the next decade with additional capacity of 22,000 MW. For the long-term, the government adopted its Fourth Strategic Energy Plan in 2014 that laid out a path to energy sector sustainability, with hydrogen and its related energy carriers slated for a major role.
Few could take exception to this response to a national crisis. But the new focus on coal turned out not to be new at all, but rather a continuation of entrenched practices that don’t seem to be changing, even as the climate crisis deepens. According to a report from the environmental non-governmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Between 2007 and 2014, more than US $73 billion – or over $9 billion a year – in public finance was approved for coal [globally]. This funding is being provided by a handful of countries that continue to resist pressure to end this public financing. Japan provided the largest amount of coal financing of any country, with over $20 billion of finance from 2007 to 2014.” A report from the labor-oriented NGO Equal Times states that “Japanese banks are among the leading financiers of coal plants, in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.”
Fast forward to last month’s United Nations COP23 Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. Here is an account of salient events that appeared in another NRDC report:
“In the same week Trump Administration officials tried to convince negotiators at the global COP23 climate conference that more coal use was needed, a global alliance of over two dozen countries, provinces, states and cities has formed to declare a phase-out of coal. Talk about a mic drop. This global Powering Past Coal Alliance was launched just three days after a much-ridiculed event hosted by the Trump Administration touting fossil fuels – which many observers noted was a mockery of real efforts to deal with climate change. As former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg noted, the Administration’s actions were like showing up to a cancer summit to promote tobacco.”
Country members of the Powering Past Coal Alliance include Angola, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, Fiji, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. But not Japan.
The Nikkei Sangyo story was injected into this zone of discomfort three weeks after the conclusion of the COP23 with the implicit counter-thesis that Japan is not a climate scofflaw. “Criticism against Japan, which is holding many coal-fired power stations and is about to export, is . . . increasing,” the story acknowledged, but Japan is leading the charge with an innovative technology that can reduce GHG emissions from coal plants. In fact, if the technology – co-firing ammonia with coal – “is implemented with all the coal-fired power in the country, it will reduce CO2 emissions by 3% in Japan.”
The coal-powered backstory may be troubling, but the emergence of ammonia as a form of national redemption is great news for ammonia energy advocates. The other great news is that the Green Ammonia Consortium is positioned as the body that will take the redemption story forward. The Consortium, originally launched in July 2017 by 19 companies and three research institutes (click here for the Ammonia Energy coverage), is dedicated to developing ammonia as a primary energy carrier in Japan and beyond. And now, as the Nikkei Sangyo story details, the Consortium has made green ammonia for electricity generation one of its central focuses.
Ammonia Energy reported in September 2017 that Consortium member Chugoku Electric was the first party to demonstrate co-firing of ammonia with coal. (The demonstration entailed a rerouting of ammonia flow from the emissions control unit to the boiler). Hiroaki Tanikawa, manager of Energia Research Institute, said in the Nikkei Sangyo story that “’practical application depends on cost-effectiveness’” while indicating that Chugoku’s economic results from the demonstration are encouraging. Chugoku intends to graduate from the 0.8% ammonia co-firing rate (by energy content) in the demonstration to a 20% rate. (Click here to see a video about the Chugoku demonstration.)
Consortium member IHI Corporation also plans to test a 20% co-firing rate at a generating station in Hyogo Prefecture, according to Nikkei Sangyo. IHI is also planning a 20% co-firing test at a generating station in Yokohama, albeit with natural gas as the primary fuel. The modified gas turbine that will be used will have a targeted power output of 2MW. According to an IHI official, “’There will be no need for major modifications to burn ammonia, which [makes it] a more realistic option than hydrogen [since it does not need] a specialized storage system.’”
The Consortium has put these activities on a formal timeline, according to Nikkei Sangyo: “In September the Consortium created a schedule for ammonia and conveyed it to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy [ANRE]. The schedule calls for ‘importing ammonia produced with renewable energy in 2020; carrying out a demonstration project using a small turbine; and full-scale introduction in the mid-20s.’” This timeline “is expected to be reflected in the government’s strategy.” ANRE takes the lead within the Ministry of Energy, Trade, and Industry (METI) on energy policy for the country.
The story also calls attention to the surprising fact of Toyota Industries’ membership in the Consortium – surprising in light of Toyota Motor Corporation’s position as the world’s most important champion of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles. The story speculated that Toyota Motor Corporation sees ammonia as a possible solution for transporting hydrogen to hydrogen fueling stations. “For example, if there is a mechanism to transport ammonia to the periphery of a hydrogen station and take out hydrogen there, there is a possibility that Toyota will promote the spread of FCVs.”
Tetsuro Hitoshi, President of Toyota Turbine, was quoted by Nikkei Sangyo as saying, “’We want to expand the base of ammonia demand by creating a turbine specialized for small-scale business use.’”
The redemption storyline reaches its acme with the news that the Consortium has attracted favorable international notice: “The activities of the Consortium were taken up as an example of the use of renewable energy in the report of the International Energy Agency (IEA)” at COP23. Indeed, per Nikkei Sangyo, “It may not be long before ammonia takes the spotlight as Japan’s eco-friendly energy.”