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Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris recently hosted Consul General of Japan Akira Muto in Lancaster to discuss next steps in the City’s relationship with Japan and to explore opportunities with hydrogen companies.

The meeting followed the July 19 signing of the world’s first “Smart Sister Cities” agreement by the Mayors of Namie, Japan, and Lancaster, California. The two cities have committed to hydrogen generation, storage, and distribution at city facilities and in their communities.

What started as a friendly lunch in the summer of 2020 between Muto and Parris has become the framework for a global movement for municipalities to adopt a hydrogen roadmap and convert to this green fuel of the future.

“When Consul General Muto laid out the facts surrounding Japan’s leap to a hydrogen-based society, I knew we had to do it here,” said Parris. Parris has transformed Lancaster, a desert town 70 miles north of Los Angeles, into a haven for solar energy — attracting more than $2 billion in investment — and advanced sustainability, with companies like electric bus manufacturer BYD establishing a foothold there.

“It was like 2008 all over again,” said Parris, referring to a boom in solar power. “We have a new type of energy ready to further decarbonize the environment and displace fossil fuels. Cities and their elected officials are needed to support hydrogen developers, permitting, and socialization. Hydrogen technology is being promoted by large companies that will bring jobs, taxes, capital, and growth,” Parris said. “I knew immediately that hydrogen was for us.” In 2008, the City of Lancaster committed to becoming the first “Net-Zero” city in the world and achieved its goal of generating more green energy than it consumes in 2019.

Parris and the Consul General got to work directly after their meeting last summer. “It happened very quickly,” Parris said. “Consul General Muto developed a clear vision for how Lancaster and Namie town in Japan could benefit by sharing knowledge, contacts, best practices, and development strategies surrounding hydrogen uptake.” Muto, a seasoned foreign service expert who has negotiated free trade agreements and navigated Japan through challenging Russia relations, knew exactly what to do.

“After WWII, Japan and the United States developed a strong relationship based on mutual cooperation and commitment,” Muto said. “In order for this program to succeed, I needed to find a city in Japan that could grow—and benefit—with Lancaster as the two cities moved forward with this unique pledge to change the world.”

He said that Namie town in Fukushima prefecture was one place in particular that came to mind. Namie had been destroyed by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of March 3, 2011 (“3-11”).

“The population fell by 95 percent and yet the town leaders were completely committed to rebuilding,” Muto said. “This time with clean hydrogen technology and investment.”

“Namie has embraced a spirit of cooperation and challenge. It reminded me of Lancaster, and we reached out to Namie Mayor Yoshida to see if he might be interested,” Muto said.

Namie had attracted investment in a large solar farm, a hydrogen generation plant, and hydrogen vehicle fueling stations. Plans were being made to convert buses to hydrogen and to use it for powering homes. Hydrogen from Namie was used for the Olympic torch and to fuel vehicles at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

In July, the cities held a web-based signing ceremony that was attended by dignitaries in the U.S. and Japan, including CA Senator Alex Padilla, CA Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, and officials from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan External Trade Organization.

For now, Namie and Lancaster are refining their hydrogen roadmaps and learning as much as they can by sharing their past and current experiences. In October, the two Mayors will sign a formal Smart Sister Cities Declaration and present their progress at Japan’s esteemed Hydrogen Ministerial to governments around the world.

“Following the Ministerial, these two clean energy mayors will invite other cities around the world to join their path,” said Lex Heslin of Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI), a multinational waste and energy company that is advising the City of Lancaster on its Hydrogen Masterplan.

Indeed, the two cities may have much to gain by their new partnership if global trends are an indicator. The European Union is racing toward zero-carbon emissions and potential investment of $150 billion in new hydrogen infrastructure by 2030. Japan, a nation almost completely dependent on fossil fuel imports, now aims to use hydrogen and green ammonia to fuel power plants, factories, trains, and even ships. California continues to lead the United States as a first mover in hydrogen – home to the largest number of hydrogen vehicles in the world (over 10,000), and a requirement that all new passenger vehicles be zero-emission by 2035.

Can two rather small cities stretched 5,000 miles apart change the type of fuel we use and the way we use it? No one can say for sure. However, Yoshida and Parris know a thing or two about their constituencies.

“Our people are strong, and we are moving forward. The citizens of Lancaster have been facing harsh environmental conditions for a long time and we continue to adapt,” Parris said. One thing seems certain–this is just the beginning for a new fuel called hydrogen and these two cities are poised to make the most of it.”