New Energy Insights: We didn’t Start the Fire, but we’ll Keep it going – The Legacy of the 1st Hydrogen Olympics

This article is part of our New Energy Insights series from our Energy, Infrastructure and Resources team. Stay tuned for regular updates and commentary on topical issues across the sector.

Following the gold rush of Olympic medals for Australia and the admirable performances of the athletes in these Covid times, it wasn’t too long before we all felt a sense of Olympic hangover.

It is now nearly a month since the closing ceremony and the conversation has shifted towards determining what legacy the Tokyo Games will leave behind. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics Games introduced us to the bullet train, and some 57 years later, we look to see what Japan’s next global footprint will bring.

Australia’s highest tally of gold medals since Athens 2004 and the birth of a new generation of sporting heroes worldwide may hold the most significance in terms of short-term relevance. Amid all the success, there is an understated accomplishment, one which may just come to be one of the most important legacies of the 2021 edition of the Games.

What happened?

In 2016, the Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike promised that the Olympic Games would “leave a hydrogen society as its legacy”.1 This consisted of expansive plans to power most of the event’s infrastructure with the clean burning gas, including;

  • An Olympic Village run purely on hydrogen; and
  • 100 fuel cell powered buses and 500 Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to transport competitors and staff between venues.

In one of the more iconic Olympic moments, for the first time ever, the Olympic torch and cauldron were both ignited by a hydrogen powered flame with zero emissions.

After the use of propane, magnesium and even olive oil to burn previous flames, the use of hydrogen and the absence of carbon dioxide production when burned was welcomed. The majority of the renewable hydrogen used to fuel the flame and all of the fuel burned to transport the competitors was based on the Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field, which includes a 10MW electrolyser and a 20MW on site solar farm.2

The flame presented considerable challenges as the hydrogen used was almost colourless and transparent when burned. However, experts made use of the perfect mix of sodium carbonate solution (SCS) and hydrogen to allow for the creation of the familiar orange yellow glow of the Olympic flame.

The Legacy

The Japanese Olympic Committee must be commended on promoting locally developed hydrogen technologies and its production of renewable hydrogen fuels. Whilst pre-Covid plans had indicated a larger scale project, the overall success of a cleaner and more energy efficient Olympics is unquestionable.

The Olympic village in Tokyo was designed with long term sustainability in mind and the idea of how the template for a ‘hydrogen city’ could be implemented in future Games. It is now in the process of being converted into residential accommodation where all the properties will be powered by renewable hydrogen rather than traditional fossil gas.

While there was undoubtedly considerable success in the implementation of hydrogen as ones of the fuels of the Games, its costly nature proved to be one of the major difficulties (for example, the hydrogen powered buses). Japan relies on the importation of hydrogen from countries such as Australia and the success of future ‘hydrogen cities’ will rely on its accessibility and how economically efficient it will be to consistently reproduce.

Such difficulties provide the opportunity needed for countries like Australia to increase its own hydrogen production industry at home. Very recently, a grant application made in Japan by JERA Co Inc and IHI Corporation to conduct a demonstration project related to co-firing of ammonia with LNG has been accepted. This will be the world’s first demonstration project in which a large amount of ammonia will be co-fired in a large-scale commercial coal-fired power plant. This is intended to support Japan’s strategy of converting power capacity to green ammonia fired instead of natural gas or coal.

Projects like these are the footholds Australia needs to push into the global hydrogen economy as a major exporter of green hydrogen and help to build the industry’s long-term commercial viability.

The first hydrogen Games can embody how we continue to implement similarly clever, sustainable ideas not just in future Olympics but other global tournaments as well. We didn’t start the fire, but we must do our best to keep it alite.

This article is the first in a series that will explore how hydrogen uses can be implemented at some of the world’s biggest events, with an eye towards how Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 can contribute to creating a roadmap for Brisbane 2032.

The Hamilton Locke team advises across the energy project life cycle – from project development, grid connection, financing, and construction, including the buying and selling of development and operating projects. For more information, please contact Matt Baumgurtel.