LANCASTER, Calif. — The city of Lancaster in the Antelope Valley and the town of Namie in Fukushima, Japan, would seem to have little in common.
One is a landlocked area at the edge of the Mojave Desert. The other is a coastal region half a world away that experienced a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed by a 50-foot tsunami and then a nuclear meltdown that forced its 21,000 residents to evacuate in 2011.
But on Monday, Lancaster and Namie joined forces in a first-of-its-kind international agreement to use hydrogen as their primary energy source.
Announced five days before the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics, which will be marked with an Olympic torch fueled — for the first time — with hydrogen, the agreement was designed to draw attention to the most abundant chemical substance on the planet and its potential as a clean energy source for transportation and electricity.
"Solving climate extinction requires never-before-seen global collaboration and smart, ambitious solutions," said Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris. "Hydrogen will be the critical component for making all of this work. For the first time, we actually have the technology to save the planet. The question is, will we have the political will to save the planet?"
Parris was the driving force behind Lancaster’s current status as the first net-zero emissions city in the world, having transitioned to solar energy after becoming mayor in 2008. Now serving his fifth term, Parris intends to up the ante, transforming Lancaster into the first hydrogen city in the U.S.
Lancaster is currently in the process of building an anaerobic digestion plant to make renewable hydrogen out of organic waste. And its city hall will be the first in the world to be powered with renewable hydrogen generated with solar electricity, as well as the first city to subsidize hydrogen-powered cars for its residents.
“We are thrilled to connect with other cities around the world that share our ambition and recognize that hydrogen’s potential is the potential to save the species,” Parris said of the smart sister cities partnership with Namie to produce, store, deliver and use hydrogen.
Prized for its abundance and an ability to be created and consumed without generating any emissions, hydrogen can be made from water, renewable biomethane gas and even plastic waste.
“Today we mark the historical opening of a new era of creating an energy sector centered on hydrogen, a fuel that can help the environment while creating new business and employment opportunities at the same time,” said Akira Muto, Japan’s general counsel in Los Angeles.
Muto hosted Monday’s event at his home alongside Parris and LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, with dozens of governmental and business leaders from both sides of the Atlantic participating online. It was Barger who introduced Muto to Parris last July, setting the wheels in motion for the smart sister cities partnership.
Japan is already the largest foreign investor in California, operating almost 2,500 companies that employ more than 81,000 people in Southern California alone, Muto said, noting that many of those investments are involved with sustainability.
When Japan’s general counsel met Parris, he recognized that Lancaster and Namie had overlapping visions. Japan had just opened the world’s largest green hydrogen facility next to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2020 with hopes it would become the global hub of a zero-emissions system that could be replicated throughout the world.
With all eyes about to be on Tokyo for the Olympics, Japan is now leveraging the global athletic event to signify Fukushima’s rebirth as a hydrogen showcase, 10 years after it was wiped out by a cascade of disasters. The Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown killed 182 people, while destroying 651 homes and 1,000 business sites. Only half of it has so far been rebuilt, but what is there now centers around hydrogen.
Last March, Namie was declared a zero-carbon city and nicknamed “hydrogen town.” In addition to being home to the world’s largest renewable hydrogen plant, it has repurposed its junior high school into a hydrogen pipeline supply demonstration project, set up a hydrogen classroom in its elementary and junior high schools, and is using fuel cell electric vehicles at its city hall.
Namie is also considering hydrogen tourism for the city, including a fuel cell bus town tour that would showcase fuel cell vehicles at its city hall and an industrial park fueled with 100% renewable energy.
“At the Tokyo Olympics, we are trying to promote the creation of a sustainable community that can power us in the future,” Namie Mayor Kazuhiro Yoshida said Monday.
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Renewably produced hydrogen from Namie will power the buses that move athletes around during the Olympic games, as well as the lighting and air conditioning in the Olympic village. It has also been used to power a concert from the Japanese rock band Luna Sea and a Toyota race car for the 24-hour Fuji Super Tec series.
While the hydrogen produced in Namie is made with solar and wind power, much of the hydrogen produced in Lancaster will come from trash in facilities developed by Japanese companies. Hitachi Zosen Inova is developing a $100 million anaerobic digester plant to transform the methane from organic waste into hydrogen. SGH2 Energy plans to build a facility in the city that can gasify recycled mixed paper.
As it strives to be the country’s first hydrogen city, Lancaster has formed a partnership with the Japan External Trade Organiziation, which coordinates collaborations between Japan, governments in the U.S. and private sector companies.
Japanese companies are already involved in several groundbreaking hydrogen projects in Southern California. Toyota is working with the Port of LA to demonstrate heavy-duty trucks powered with the same hydrogen fuel cells that are in its Mirai passenger vehicles. And Mitsubishi Fuso America is currently conducting a feasibility study for on-site renewable hydrogen production at the port, with the goal of using 100% renewable hydrogen to power the trucks that operate there.
“This is truly a first-of-its-kind agreement for smart sister cities to have municipalities in California and Japan working together on developing this technology from thousands of miles away,” said Barger. “The lessons we are learning from Namie are immeasurable.”
Barger, who is also director for the LA Country Metropolitan Transportation Authority, added that she is looking at the Lancaster and Namie partnership to inform LA as it prepares to host the 2028 Olympics. Just as Namie is supplying hydrogen to power some aspects of the Tokyo Olympics, Lancaster could potentially do the same for LA after it gets its hydrogen plants up and running.
"Through their partnership, we are hopeful that new technology will power our transportation systems as we welcome the world to our county," Barger said.