UKERC in Japan at the Annual RD20 Conference

26 Oct 2023

At the beginning of October 2023 UKERC Director Rob Gross and Jamie Speirs of the Centre for Energy Policy at the University of Strathclyde represented UKERC at the 5th annual conference of the RD20 initiative, held in the Fukushima region of Japan. With organisational funding from the government of Japan, RD20 (Research and Development 20 for Clean Energy Technologies) aims to strengthen international research collaboration among key R&D institutes from G20 members and promote innovation for ‘carbon-neutral’ technologies. RD20 started in the same year as Japan held the G20 Presidency and RD20 is acknowledged in the G20 Osaka Leaders Declaration.

Leading research institutions from the G20 countries take part. Examples include NREL in the US, Fraunhoffer in Germany,  and the EU Joint Research Centre (JRC). UKERC represents the UK. The full list of participating research institutes is here.

Goals and founding of RD20

The aspiration of the RD20 programme is that G20 members, which account for a major portion of global CO2 emissions, “play a leadership role in the innovation and development of clean energy technologies for promoting energy transitions.” RD20 was founded to advance the prospect that R&D institutes from G20 members, which carry out the world’s cutting-edge technological development in the clean energy field, could play a significant role in maximizing the global potential of innovation by developing research alliances among the members, thereby accelerating international collaborations including joint R&D activities. Within this context, at the Davos meeting in January 2019, then Prime Minister ABE Shinzo announced his initiative to invite topmost experts from G20 member countries to combine forces in accelerating innovation in the context of climate change.

Former UKERC Director, Jim Watson, attended the inaugural RD20 conference in Tokyo in 2019. The conference transitioned online during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in 2023, it resumed full in-person attendance. The UK lacks a national research laboratory for energy, and this is unusual amongst the G20 country participants. Owing to previous commitments, leaders from other UK energy research consortia could not attend this year. However, Jamie stepped in to assist UKERC at the 2023 conference and, alongside Rob Gross, played a crucial role in representing UK interests. For the UK to play a comprehensive role in the future, it will be vital to encompass a diverse range of perspectives from the UK energy research community.

RD20 offers opportunities for R&D exchange and best practices in clean energy-related technologies, as well as avenues for international collaborative studies. Additionally, RD20 seeks to cultivate and deepen partnerships among industry-government-academia stakeholders. Currently, the focus is on three ‘task force’ topics: two on photovoltaics and one on hydrogen lifecycle assessment. During the conference, UKERC underscored the significance of public participation, electrification of energy end-use, whole systems approaches, and the urgent need for action on energy system transformation using existing technologies. We are already following up with meetings to discuss the approaches developed in the Public Engagement Observatory and intend to continue to encourage RD20 to take a broad and whole system view of research challenges.

RD20 also inaugurated its first international summer school in France in July 2023, with participation from UKERC researchers. The next summer school will be in Indonesia, and possibilities to host a UK-based summer school will be explored once UKERC’s new phase commences.

Rob in Japan

Prof Rob Gross in RD20 in Japan

Conference highlights

The conference served as a rare opportunity for dialogue with senior representatives from globally renowned research institutions. Many participants highlighted the necessity for RD20 to produce impactful outputs aligning with international policy processes through the G20 member countries. UKERC is keen to ensure that this becomes a core part of the RD20 endeavour, as well as promoting researcher interaction and exchange of ideas.

Conference attendees were treated to a site visit to the Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R) – the world’s largest renewable energy-powered hydrogen production facility. Equipped with grid-connected electrolysers paired with a significant photovoltaic installation, the facility aims to enhance hydrogen production for transportation purposes. Japan has high aspirations for the role of hydrogen in achieving their 2050 decarbonisation goals. The demonstration facility offered insights into real-world challenges linked to optimising PV input for local networks and hydrogen production for transport applications.

Lastly, participants visited the Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum, located a mere 3km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Ōkuma, Fukushima, close to the current exclusion zone. The village at the disaster’s epicentre has been entirely cleared, with the low-lying area now serving as flood defences. However, many nearby homes remain off-limits with no prospects of habitation. The future of nuclear power divides Japanese society. Regardless of one’s stance on nuclear power, the Memorial Museum offers a poignant insight into the human toll of local communities uprooted by the tsunami and radioactive fallout following the Daiichi plant explosion on 11 March 2011.

Japan’s forward-looking energy initiatives

Japan is placing renewable energy and clean energy innovation at the centre of their efforts to regenerate the Fukushima region following the disaster. The RD20 initiative represents a bold attempt on the part of the Japanese government to enhance low carbon energy research linkages across the world’s leading economies. The UK research funding model is such that UKERC does not have the level of core funding available to national energy research institutions in some of our peer countries. Ensuring that the UK can play a full role in RD20 action is likely to require incremental funding from UK foreign policy and innovation funding agencies. We look forward to exploring how this might be taken forward, and in the meantime thank our Japanese hosts for the opportunity to participate in such a remarkable event.