The emerging hydrogen economy is creating new opportunities for businesses to collaborate on energy solutions that benefit the bottom line while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The latest to test the waters is 7-Eleven. The company has just paired up with Toyota to study how zero emission hydrogen can help reduce emissions along its distribution system and at its growing number of stores.
That "growing number" is what makes the new collaboration especially interesting. If the plan works out, it could enable 7-Eleven to continue growing in size without growing its carbon footprint, too.
Toyota And 7-Eleven collaborate on hydrogen
The primary source of hydrogen today is fossil natural gas, and if that remains the case then hydrogen is not a sustainable solution over the long run.
However, the advent of low cost renewable energy is beginning to change hydrogen for the better. Hydrogen is actually abundant in our ecosystem, but since the element is unstable on its own, it is most often found paired in a chemical bond with oxygen in good old H2O. It takes energy to split water into its base elements, and if that energy is from a dirty source, the resulting hydrogen is not a clean fuel. However as the costs of renewable energy continue to decrease, clean hydrogen becomes more feasible.
If the new collaboration between Toyota and 7-Eleven relies on fossil-sourced hydrogen initially, there are indications that sustainable hydrogen could be the ultimate goal.
The partnership, announced on August 9, recruits 7-Eleven stores in Japan to help engineer the "low-carbon and hydrogen-based society in the future." Toyota already has a demonstration project under way in Japan for powering economic activity with water-sourced hydrogen using offshore wind turbines, and it has just launched a major hydrogen research initiative with a broad sustainability mission.
The agreement between Toyota and 7-Eleven covers the distribution angle through fuel cell trucks, which will use hydrogen for motive power and also for operating refrigeration units.
To reduce emissions related to store operations, the agreement leverages existing solar generators in Japan, where the company made waves back in 2011 by opening 100 solar powered stores.
7-Eleven has been dipping its toes into next-generation energy management, and that is also reflected in the new collaboration.
In tandem with the existing solar generators, 7-Eleven stores will examine integrating hydrogen generators, based on units used in fuel cell electric vehicles like those in Toyota's Mirai fuel cell EV. 7-Eleven will also install battery systems that can be used for EV charging. The battery arrays can also fill in as a power supply for the store in case of emergency.
7-Eleven and the hydrogen economy of the future
So, here's where it gets interesting. Between its stores and its transportation network, 7-Eleven has a pretty hefty carbon footprint to manage already.
That footprint is likely to sprawl even farther as 7-Eleven adds more stores, but the increased number of stores is only part of the challenge.
7-Eleven is joining supermarkets and other convenience chains in the march to sell ready-to-eat meals to grab-and-go customers. That means more refrigeration is needed in stores and on trucks, and consequently more energy.
Last April the Dallas News took an in depth look at 7-Eleven's plans for expansion in the U.S., and it's a real eye opener. The gist is that the company is buying (or now, has bought) more than 1100 existing convenience stores from Sunoco, located mainly along the East Coast and in Texas.
On top of that, 7-Eleven is getting into the burgeoning taco business, by purchasing the trademarks of Laredo Taco Company and Stripes:
7-Eleven, which has been building its fresh food offerings in recent years, is gaining a whole new menu of breakfast and lunch tacos with Laredo Taco Company and Stripes. A new Stripes store in Corpus Christie has a dining area with 28 seats and an outdoor patio for 20 more, which is different from the traditional 2,500-square-foot 7-Eleven.
According to the Dallas News, 7-Eleven currently has more than 9800 stores in the U.S. and Canada. If the Stripes Corpus Christie model of indoor seating prove profitable, it becomes an additional area growth for 7-Eleven, and for its carbon footprint -- especially considering the high demand for air conditioning in the southern U.S.
That's where 7-Eleven's hydrogen and solar collaboration with Toyota in Japan comes in. The two companies will have the opportunity to measure before-and-after carbon emissions in real life, rather than simply modeling and estimating.
If it all works out, solar power with a hydrogen boost -- sustainable hydrogen, that is -- could enable 7-Eleven to do something that would have been all but impossible just a few years ago: continue growing, while stabilizing and perhaps even shrinking its carbon footprint.
Image: via Toyota Motor Company.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.