Affected by the triple disaster of March 2011, Fukushima Prefecture is pegging its future on a shift to renewable energy. Local communities, however, are calling for caution
Sitting silently among the rolling pastures, rice paddies and lush forests of the idyllic village of Otama are rows upon rows of photovoltaic solar panels — vast swaths of dark gray injecting dissonance into the postcard-like landscape local residents pride themselves on.
These solar farms began sprouting in the aftermath of the powerful March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant located some 60 kilometers east of Otama, a rural community of 8,700 and member of a nonprofit association called The Most Beautiful Villages of Japan.
Along with evacuees and radiation decontamination workers came developers lured by the feed-in tariff system the government issued to promote renewable energy, a measure aimed at reducing dependence on nuclear power and a sign of how the historic disaster began shifting the fundamental direction of Japan’s energy policy.
The rapid installation of the photovoltaic cells, however, has troubled villagers concerned over the aesthetic damage they inflict on the landscape, and illustrates some of the challenges the nation faces as it struggles to remain competitive in a global market more concerned than ever about greenhouse gas emissions.
“We were one of the first municipalities in Fukushima to voice our support in promoting renewable energy after the disaster,” says Masao Takeda, deputy mayor of the village. “But these solar farms can be eyesores and increase landslide risks due to the logging of mountain forests. It’s our duty to protect the majestic scenery of our village for our children.”
In June last year, Otama made a rare declaration against the indiscriminate construction of so-called mega solar farms — large-scale projects capable of producing thousands of kilowatts of power — saying they were unattractive and impacted the natural environment.
“We’re not banning solar energy. In fact, we offer subsidies to households willing to install solar panels on their roofs,” Takeda says. “We’re just asking developers to be responsible for what they build and work with residents to ensure it won’t be a burden for the village in the long run. There have been cases in the past where the management of solar projects changed hands to the point where we had difficulty keeping track of who was overseeing what.”
Otama is located at the foot of Mount Adatara, a well-known ski resort and popular hiking destination. The village made headlines in 2015 when it became the world’s first to forge a twin city partnership with Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel and UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Peru, in honor of Yokichi Nouchi, an Otama native who emigrated to the South American nation in the early 20th century and contributed to the development of tourism in the “city in the clouds.”
Known for its rich farmlands that produce rice and buckwheat used to make local sake and shōchū (distilled spirits), the village is now home to three mega solar farms each taking up more than 10,000 square meters of land, with other smaller projects in the pipeline. All facilities are managed by companies based outside of Fukushima.
“The incentive is big for landowners with idle properties,” says Eiki Takeda, an Otama official, during a recent tour of the village’s solar facilities. He explained that many are drawn to the idea of selling or renting out their land to developers for income rather than paying property taxes. All in all, Takeda says there are an estimated 20 to 30 solar projects ranging in size currently dotting the village.
“Developers scout out good locations,” he says, “and come searching for their owners to negotiate directly.”
Fukushima has been at the forefront of the nation’s renewable energy drive since it became the scene for one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents nine years ago, prompting the prefecture to set an ambitious goal of powering 100 percent of the region with renewable energy by 2040, compared to around 40 percent today.
Last year, the Nikkei reported that Fukushima Prefecture is planning to develop 11 solar and 10 wind power plants on abandoned farmlands and mountainous areas suffering depopulation by the end of March 2024. The project will cost an estimated ¥300 billion that will be sponsored in part by the government-owned Development Bank of Japan and Mizuho Bank, the report said.
The plan will see an 80-kilometer grid connecting Fukushima’s new renewable energy plants with Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s networks to supply electricity to the Tokyo metropolitan area. Upon completion, the project is expected to generate up to 600 megawatts of electricity, roughly two-thirds the output of an average nuclear power plant.
“Some of the solar energy plants will begin operation this month, although the progress of those situated in coastal areas depends on reconstruction work following last year’s typhoon damage,” says Seiichi Suzuki, president of Fukushima Electric Power Co., a Fukushima Prefecture-backed company born in the wake of the 2011 disaster to promote renewable energy and one of the parties involved in the project.
Setting up wind turbines is more complicated due to the various administrative permissions they require, including environmental assessments, Suzuki says, meaning it could take a few more years before they are up and running.
Meanwhile, Suzuki says one of the world’s largest hydrogen plants is being built in the coastal town of Namie, which will be used for fuel-cell vehicles and other purposes during the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
Located 10 kilometers north of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, Namie was one of the hardest-hit towns in the prefecture’s easternmost Hamadori region. To serve as symbols of reconstruction and the prefecture’s green shift, several municipalities including Namie and the nearby village of Katsurao have since been designated so-called smart communities — networks of houses, buildings and other structures that efficiently produce and consume electricity.
Backed by a new company headed by Suzuki, Katsurao, whose population of 1,400 was forced to evacuate for five years following the nuclear disaster, plans to construct a micro-grid using a 2,000-kilowatt solar plant and 3,000-kilowatt storage cell and independent transmission lines. Around 2.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity is expected to be produced, equivalent to the amount consumed by 600 households annually.
“The entire nation is wired — you can receive electricity whether you live in Yamagata or Hokkaido,” Suzuki says. “But what we learned from the disaster is how it interrupts the distribution of food, water and energy. Blackouts can be triggered by distant utility poles being knocked down.”
By installing its own power grid and saving surplus energy, the village will be able to send electricity to vital infrastructure when existing power lines are cut off, he says.
Despite Japan’s awakening to renewable energy, nuclear power remains a vital component of the government’s mid-term energy strategy.
All 54 of the nation’s nuclear reactors shut down in the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, but nine have since restarted following stringent safety checks. More are in the pipeline.
As of 2018, renewables accounted for around 17.4 percent of Japan’s energy mix, according to the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies. That’s compared to renewables representing 17.5 percent of energy consumed in the European Union in 2017, according to the European Commission, on a path to the 2020 target of 20 percent.
While Japan plans to increase the ratio of renewables to between 22 percent and 24 percent by 2030, it also sees the proportion of nuclear energy grow from 20 percent to 22 percent. Most of the nation’s energy will still be supplied by coal, oil and natural gas.
That reliance on coal, both as an energy source and as an infrastructure export strategy, has drawn criticism. During a U.N. climate conference in Madrid last month, Japan received the “Fossil of the Day” award from the Climate Action Network after the industry minister said the nation planned to continue using coal-fired power.
Grid connection issues and investment costs are part of what’s hindering the promotion of renewable energy, says Masaru Nakaiwa, director-general of the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute based in the city of Koriyama, part of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.
Japan has a wide variety of renewable energy options, Nakaiwa says. For example, it has the world’s third largest geothermal reserves, although many of the sites are in mountainous areas with fragile power transmission networks or in national parks with nature conservation regulations.
“That means that, at this stage, our country is leaning heavily toward solar and wind power,” he says. “However, Japan trails its Chinese and European competitors as a producer of solar power technology, which is a major issue going forward.”
Firms such as China’s JinkoSolar Holding, the world’s largest panel maker, have flooded Japan’s photovoltaic market,
forcing some domestic producers into bankruptcy.
Japan’s feed-in tariff system, under which electricity produced by operators from renewable energy sources is bought by power suppliers at fixed rates, has also kept renewables expensive compared to other developed nations.
Under the system Japan introduced in 2012, the government set favorable prices for energy from wind and solar operators. The higher rates, however, are passed on to consumers via electricity bills, and these purchasing fees have ballooned as renewable energy production expanded. In fiscal 2019 alone, the burden on the public will total ¥2.4 trillion, with the cumulative total reaching around ¥10 trillion.
The industry ministry is reviewing the system to reduce the cost burden on the public and plans to adopt a competitive bidding system for electricity generated by businesses using large-scale facilities.
Meanwhile, many of the 10-year residential solar contracts with utilities began to expire in November as the nation winds down the subsidized surplus electricity purchase program — the precursor to feed-in tariffs — that was launched in 2009.
While households whose contracts have expired can continue selling electricity to utilities, some industry experts say it could be more economical to use the power themselves and store surplus energy for emergencies.
“The first wave of people who signed up to the program in 2009 received ¥48 per kilowatt-hour. But that rate gradually decreased, and once the 10-year contract is up, utilities will buy them for only ¥9 (per kilowatt-hour) or less,” says Kenichi Harada, a senior engineer at Apollo Gas Co., a Fukushima-based gas company that has been promoting renewables. “Many of the folks are starting to install storage batteries to save extra energy, but these reserve cells can be pricey and there’s a long line waiting for them.”
Apollo Gas has installed solar panels to around 1,000 homes in Fukushima Prefecture to date, Harada says, explaining that there are numerous conditions that need to be met for them to operate efficiently. Shade from buildings, trees or any other tall structures are major hindrances, while areas with heavy snowfall can also be affected.
“The best season for photovoltaics is spring, but that’s also the time of the year when people use the least amount of electricity. And while solar panels absorb more energy during cold weather, the days in winter are far shorter. Dealing with seasonal conditions can be something of a dilemma,” he says. “Despite these issues, however, solar is the most low-maintenance among renewable energy sources and remains the most casual and attractive option.”
Finding a balance
Last month, Otama issued a nonbinding ordinance asking developers looking to construct solar facilities to submit detailed business proposals, including maintenance and nature conservation plans. The ordinance excludes residential solar systems and targets facilities producing more than 10 kilowatts of energy. Developers that fail to fulfill the criteria could be asked to take additional measures, while the names of those who don’t comply could be made public or referenced to the national government.
“It’s just an ordinance and doesn’t command strong authority. However, we want to make it clear that while we welcome businesses willing to work with us, we don’t want excessively money-driven developers,” says Takeda, the deputy mayor.
The 64-year-old, born and raised in Otama, lovingly describes the village’s many cultural attractions, including the bi-annual 12-god kagura performance at Kamiharada Shrine and the Motozoro rice planting dance, traditions that have been handed down for centuries.
Last year, the village successfully passed the screening process to renew its membership with The Most Beautiful Villages of Japan, an organization established in 2005 that currently boasts 64 villages and towns known for their spectacular natural resources.
“We’re intent on preserving that heritage,” Takeda says.
As we enter a new decade, we believe it’s important to tackle an issue that represents one of the biggest challenges Japan faces over the next 10 years — the climate crisis. To this end, this is the third installment of a four-part series that examines the impact of the crisis on Japan. The final installment will appear in print on Sunday, Jan. 26. The first installment on the impact of declaring a climate emergency can be found at http://jtimes.jp/iki. The second installment on plastic can be found at http://jtimes.jp/plastic.