Japan & SoCalGas: Harnessing Hydrogen & the Olympic Spirit for a Clean Energy Future

Maryam Brown

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics will be the first hydrogen-powered games, showcasing to the world Japan's commitment to leadership in developing hydrogen fuel cell technology to meet the Climate Imperative.  From the November 2020 VX Green Hydrogen Discussion Forum, VX News excerpts Akira Muto, the Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles, Maryam Brown, President of SoCalGas, and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting remarks reflecting on the partnerships—and Olympic spirit—powering the global pursuit of hydrogen technology solutions for a clean energy future.

Consul General Akira Muto:  Thank you for co-hosting this kick-off establishing a network among the stakeholders who are interested in building the hydrogen-powered society in this region and beyond. Before I start, let me note by saying that Japan is the largest investor nation in Southern California; we run 2,500 companies, creating 86,000 jobs. According the survey recently conducted by JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization), despite the pandemic crisis, Japanese companies are still doing business here. Seventy percent of those Japanese businesses intend to maintain or even expand their businesses.

This is especially so in the area of sustainability. I am extremely encouraged to see Japanese businesses and companies investing heavily in this area. For example, Mitsubishi Power America is now engaged in transitioning the coal-powered Intermountain Power Plant in Utah to a hydrogen-powered plant. The JBIC (Japan Bank of International Cooperation) and Mitsui announced recently an investment of $48 million in First Element fuel for purposes of building hydrogen infrastructure in the region. Toyota and other Japanese companies are engaged in decarbonizing the Port of LA by replacing heavy-duty equipment such as trucks, cranes, rigs, and top handlers with hydrogen-powered equipment.

Our new prime minister, Suga, stated in his first policy speech conducted on October 26 that Japan will build and achieve a carbon-neutral society by 2050. He has succeeded his predecessor Abe's cabinet decision of building the hydrogen-powered society by 2030. I am sure that hydrogen will be a critical and integral component and renewable resource as we build a carbon-neutral society. My argument here is for Japan not to achieve these goals by herself, but to do it together with California, which will allow hydrogen-powered society to expand across the United States and beyond. I look forward to collaborating together with you all, moving forward, and promoting the hydrogen-powered society in Southern California; together we can change the world.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti (recording): For my city, and for all of you, we live in a critical moment. We face emergencies on every front, from the global pandemic to our economies and our climate, but as we confront each challenge, today, we are taking action for tomorrow. As we work to recover right now, we are also reimagining what our society, our economy, and our world can be. In Los Angeles, that was our mission long before COVID-19. Last year, I released LA's Green New Deal, an ambitious plan for a city and a region that are healthier, more just, more equitable, and more prosperous. 

Our flagship goal is big and bold, zero-carbon power by 2045, and carbon neutrality by 2050. Not just something we're hoping for, a reality that we can, must, and will achieve. It's a promise we can and will keep by taking meaningful steps and tapping into partnerships across the globe. We're deploying green hydrogen here in LA and collaborating with cities worldwide including in Japan.

Our Department of Water and Power is working with international partners including Japanese companies on the Intermountain Power Project, transitioning away from coal, investing in renewable energy storage, and moving to 100 percent renewable hydrogen by 2045. At the Port of Los Angeles where more goods enter the United States than anywhere else, we're on the road to zero emissions by 2035. Thank you to deep cooperation between Japanese and American companies, we're piloting hydrogen fuel cell technology in heavy duty trucks. We're working together because we know a fundamental truth: what we do in our own backyard ripples far beyond our borders. We're very grateful for the strong, productive relationship between Los Angeles and Japan and the decades of friendship, and we look forward to new collaborations, new networks, and marching side by side with you toward a more prosperous future.

Maryam Brown: It was mentioned at the outset of this event, but I want to put a finer point on it. This July, the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo will be the world's first hydrogen-powered Olympics. As Japan's leadership in hydrogen is very inspiring to SoCal Gas, I'd like to begin by saluting Japan’s spirit of innovation, and by pointing out that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the first Olympics to be held in Asia—were also the first to be broadcast by satellite. Before that, we needed tape and film reels that had to be put on planes and flown across the ocean to show the events on TV.  Telecasts of those 1964 Tokyo Olympics were also the first to broadcast sporting events in color, and sumo wrestling was one of those events, which, I think, makes it really clear that there are benefits to being first. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics also marked the debut of Japan's first bullet train.

What these firsts show us is that the leaders in Japan had the vision years ahead of their time to look forward in time and see what could be. They also had the expertise, the engineering talent, and the dedication to excellence to build their vision, and learning from leaders, like Tokyo Gas, is central to SoCal Gas’s approach to hydrogen.

Last year, Tokyo Gas graciously hosted us during our visit to Japan, and their leadership in hydrogen as well as fuel cells inspires and informs our own hydrogen planning at the gas company, and we look forward to continued collaboration, all the way to the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.

 It is an honor to participate in this discussion on hydrogen because SoCal Gas sees big potential for hydrogen, and we want to work with the State of California to achieve that potential. California agencies—you heard from Commissioner McAllister—they're looking at the role hydrogen can play in meeting our decarbonization goals. After bringing renewable electricity, renewables, and batteries into the power generation mix, creating a winning template that the world is following, the next question is long duration storage.

CalTech, one of our most esteemed universities and many other academics agree that the only way to meet energy reliability needs is with long-duration storage, and hydrogen is the most cost effective.  Reliability and affordability were policy objectives that the commissioner raised as priorities. This issue is central to decarbonization, balancing supply and demand to ensure energy reliability and resiliency within the context of climate change.  California can lead on this issue like we have led on renewable electricity because hydrogen has a starring role to play. California and SoCal Gas has a history of leading that is very instructive here. You may not believe that history repeats itself, but it absolutely rhymes. California was the first state to truly incentivize efficiency with decoupling policies and 30 years later, it was a nationwide trend.

California was the first state to set a performance standard for power plants, a decade ahead of the Obama-Biden Clean Power Plan. California was also the first state to establish a statewide GHG reduction policy that is driving so much of our work today. With that, we have one of the highest renewable electricity percentages in the country.

Southern California Gas Company, as a California regulated utility, we've been following California's lead. We are among the most progressive gas utilities in the country. We were the first gas utility to demonstrate renewable natural gas from wastewater into the gas utility system, and this is a resource that is increasingly becoming plentiful. We were the first gas utility to install smart meters for the gas system, encouraging efficiency to help reduce greenhouse gases. And we have one of the tightest systems in the country. And we will be the first gas utility to aerially map our methane emissions, so that we can get it even tighter.

Perhaps most notably, for the purposes of this panel, I want to flag that we established the first power-to-hydrogen gas demonstration project in the nation at the University of California Irvine, where incredible work is being done in this space. And we are very proud to be a leader in the conversation around hydrogen today.

 I spent a minute focusing on our respective firsts because I think it's an important hallmark of leadership, the ability to see into the future how the markets are changing and what you have to do to be ready for that change. I think conversations like we're having today are so important to that. Hydrogen and its potential to help decarbonize our energy system reliably and affordably is a shared vision both for California and SoCalGas.

So, what’s ahead for hydrogen?  Having committed to being the cleanest, safest, and most innovative gas utility in North America, SoCalGas is working to help California adopt clean molecules into our energy mix—and, Commissioner McAllister, we're counting those molecules as you advise.  Our R&D program is spearheading a broad spectrum of low carbon technologies, and we're exploring the suitability of our existing network, more than 100,000 miles of pipe, for transporting clean fuels. And in eight days (but who's counting), we will file an application at the CPUC to begin the process of developing a hydrogen blending standard for gas utilities in California. And once that filing is in, I look forward to future discussions about the demonstration projects at the heart of the application. These projects are going to give us the information we need to identify safe injection standards that will support the development of competitively priced, clean, hydrogen for the industry.

To crystallize, I think it's clear from the discussion today, in the priority that we're putting on this discussion today, that hydrogen is a key component of the 21st century energy system. To make this a reality, we're committed to the exact collaboration that has been spoken to today with the CEC, with the state, with federal leaders, with international leaders like Tokyo Gas and other industry partners.

 I'll close by returning to the theme of the Olympics, to an abiding element of the Olympic Games, and that is the Olympic spirit. That spirit involves the coming together of the best and the most hard working—an assemblage of excellence. In 1964, athletes from 93 nations attended the Tokyo Olympics. This July, there will be 206. More participation by the best, brings out the best. When so much talent is assembled in one place, the commitment to excellence of each athlete from each nation is magnified. For example, and the US Men's swim team broke 11 world records that year in the ‘64 Olympics—going faster than they had ever before, because they were surrounded by others similarly motivated to excel. Now, I think it could be the same with us. Those of us gathered together here at VerdeXchange today, as we power the future with our partners at Tokyo Gas and with our colleagues at the CEC and the federal level, all of us together, spurring each other to be our best, and this is what's going to give the world the energy future that it deserves.

“Hydrogen and its potential to help decarbonize our energy system reliably and affordably is a shared vision both for California and SoCalGas.” Maryam Brown
“Last year, Tokyo Gas graciously hosted us during our visit to Japan, and their leadership in hydrogen as well as fuel cells inspires and informs our own hydrogen planning at the gas company, and we look forward to continued collaboration, all the way to the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.”—Maryam Brown