March 11, 2011 was a day I will never forget, a day when the people of Namie in northern Japan lost so much and endured so much. It was a quiet Friday afternoon when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. As a city official, he attended a high school graduation ceremony in the morning. When, that afternoon, the ground shook violently in one of the largest earthquakes to ever hit our earthquake-prone country, I knew there was a great risk of a tsunami and was relieved that all the children were safely evacuated to a higher ground.
But for many in our city, the tragedy was incessant. 181 of our friends and neighbors lost their lives when 15-meter waves crashed into the shoreline, engulfing the 600 houses along the shoreline. We continue to cry for those who have passed away. Even then our ordeal was not over. As the hours passed, we learned through television broadcasts that the nearby Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant was in trouble and that evacuation warnings had been announced. All 21,000 of our residents had to evacuate with little more than they could carry.
In such moments, it is difficult to imagine a future. Instead, each day is dedicated to dealing with his loss and dealing with everyday life. The basic needs of food, shelter and medical attention were our main problems. But the future, of course, arrives. And although we cannot control the ravages of nature, we can shape our destiny and this is what we have done in Namie.
As I spoke to many of our residents over the next several months, many said they wanted to come back to life as before. Although I agreed, I realized that we must look to a new future instead. Ten years later, we are back and proud of what we have accomplished. And now, the new age of hydrogen energy is shaping our future. With the help of regional and national leaders, our city is today home to the largest hydrogen plant in Japan and the world.
This exciting journey began in 2017, when the New Energy and Industrial Development Organization (NEDO) announced a tender offer for a “Fukushima Hydrogen Project.” Having felt a strong need to switch to renewables, Namie applied and,
fortunately, he was awarded the project. The project was impressive: using old farmland for solar energy to produce electricity to drive electrolysis that produces clean hydrogen from Namie’s water. Hydrogen is a clean fuel that can be easily stored and transported, its potential as an energy source is almost limitless, from trucks and cars to ships and even airplanes. Unlike projects that rely on burning coal or oil to produce hydrogen, Namie was able to generate hydrogen from clean, renewable and completely CO2-free sources.
Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide declared that Japan would achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. This declaration and the global move towards zero emissions encouraged us, knowing that we are moving in the right direction. Now I am confident that we are successfully recovering from the nuclear disaster and are becoming the leading hydrogen city in the world.
I hope that we can serve as a symbolic leader in this movement for the rest of Japan, as well as highlight Japan’s skills in innovating hydrogen-based technologies to power our transportation systems and homes. The hydrogen made in Namie is already set to light the torch for the 2020 Olympics.
However, for a city to have a future, it needs more than a power station. Namie today is home to just 1,500 people and much of our city is still part of the long cleanup process. My vision is to create a vibrant and growing city, one that balances cutting-edge technologies with our farming and fishing traditions and highlights the natural beauty of our area. In this way we can attract the new residents we need to thrive.
To create a lasting job market, we formulated the Namie Hydrogen Town initiative, which would enable green growth through the incorporation of innovative companies. Partnerships with leading-edge energy technology companies such as Toshiba have been invaluable to the initiative. We are also inviting “hydrogen tourism”, an opportunity to showcase the latest innovations in the use of renewable energy. In addition, plans have been put in place to use ICT technologies to drive the recovery of primary industry, establishing a local agricultural cycle. We also opened the first elementary and middle schools in 2018, and I was delighted to hear the children play in our hometown after so many years.
The past year has been an incredibly difficult time for towns and cities around the world. The coronavirus pandemic, wildfires and other disasters have created enormous disruptions in the lives of many people. But, as I have learned, we cannot allow disaster to take away our hope for the future. Simply trying to go back in time will not attract the next generation needed for innovation and growth. I hope that Namie’s 10-year transformation can be a model of how to turn hardship into opportunity and that each people create their own vision for the future and a better society.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism