Green hydrogen will power production of Japanese whisky Hakushu

Using renewable electricity, Suntory will produce hydrogen to supply heat for distillation and fuel its buses and trucks.

A man in a white work uniform looks inside a large wooden vat
A worker checks the fermentation vats at Suntory Liquors' Hakushu distillery in Hokuto City, Yamanashi prefecture. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)
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Scent of pine needles, fresh-cut grass, a hint of smoke and…a splash of hydrogen?”

Tasting notes like these could soon become reality for the 12-year Hakushu single malt as the effort to decarbonize hard-to-abate industrial emissions reaches hard liquor.

Iconic Japanese whisky brand Suntory already buys 100 percent clean electricity for its booze-making operations at the eminent Hakushu distillery. But the company is taking decantable decarbonization to a new level with last week’s commitment to run the distillery and a nearby water processing plant with locally produced clean hydrogen by 2025

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Suntory will install a 16-megawatt electrolyzer at its facility in the forested Southern Alps of Yamanashi prefecture. This device, dubbed the Yamanashi Model Power-to-Gas (P2G) System, will use renewable electricity produced in the region to make hydrogen. The colorless, odorless gas will then be burned to supply heat for the distillation process and to sterilize locally sourced mineral water; some of it will be used to fuel the facility’s buses and trucks. 

Depending on who you ask, hydrogen is either vaporware or a clean-energy wonder fuel that could do everything from propelling trucks across continents to storing renewable power for months on end and replacing fossil fuels for industrial tasks that require intense heat. 

Clean energy technologies such as solar panels and batteries have managed to defy expectations and reach massive scale. But so far, commercial facilities running on carbon-free hydrogen are rarer than a 25-year-old Hakushu. Nevertheless, Suntory is particularly excited about its hydrogen project as it moves toward a carbon-free value chain by 2050, Chief Sustainability Officer Makiko Ono told Canary Media in an email. 

It will not emit any greenhouse gases and will also generate enough green energy for the surrounding communities,” Ono said. We look forward to the Hakushu facilities becoming home to one of the world’s leading green hydrogen powerhouses.”

Over the last decade, buying clean electricity for corporate operations has quickly progressed from avant-garde to passe. If corporate renewables are the blockbuster release that everyone’s watching, industrial clean hydrogen is more like experimental French cinema: little seen, less understood and dependent on state largesse. 

Clean or green” hydrogen production comes from electrolyzers, which run electricity through water to generate pure hydrogen molecules. Those devices are produced at small scale and high cost, though empirical studies suggest they are on a technological learning curve” and will decline in cost as deployment increases. (Currently, nearly all industrial hydrogen production is derived from fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases.)

The other cost driver for carbon-free hydrogen is sourcing the clean electricity needed to power the process of electrolysis. At a high level, this sounds like a great use for excess wind and solar power. But crunching the numbers reveals that only using bursts of surplus renewables doesn’t power enough hydrogen production to make projects cost-effective. Hydrogen developers are still figuring out business models that make sense.

Suntory doesn’t need to crack that nut because the Japanese government has a well-established track record of subsidizing uneconomical hydrogen investments in the name of fighting climate change and having backup energy in case the grid goes down. 

In fact, of the Hakushu project’s 14-billion-yen cost, 10 billion yen will be paid by Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), through its Green Innovation Fund, Ono noted. 

The plan is to complete construction in 2024 and finish testing and verification in 2025.

We estimate that when operated at full capacity, the 16-megawatt size P2G system will be able to produce the same amount of heat energy that is currently being consumed annually at the Hakushu Distillery and the Minami Alps Hakushu Water Plant, enabling the two facilities to run on green hydrogen,” Ono said.

In other words, Suntory is taking a trust-but-verify approach to this emerging clean fuel, and doing so with little money down. That’s a strategy worth toasting to.

Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.