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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Renewables Unite Locals

Minori Takao

Mar. 10, 2016

Japan's energy strategy has been a hot topic since disaster struck Fukushima 5 years ago.

Researchers from around the world discussed the global energy situation at a recent symposium in Tokyo.

A Japanese government official at the event said the country will focus its efforts on renewable energy.

"The Japanese energy market and energy policy are about to change dramatically," said Toshimitsu Fujiki, from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The government plan for 2030 says nuclear power will provide 20 percent to 22 percent of Japan's energy needs. That compares with more than 28 percent before the 2011 accident.

The plan calls for the share of renewable sources to be 22 percent to 24 percent -- up from about 10 percent in 2013.

"Japan has enormous renewable efficiency resources," said Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who also attended the symposium. "Japan has about 9-times Germany's high quality renewables but gets only 9th as much as its electricity from renewables as Germany does.

"If real competition is allowed in deregulation, then I think Japan will be a world reader."

Mika Obayashi, director of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, said: "People really interested in changing energy policy in Japan. I think now is the time for Japan to use such kind of opportunities."

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a news conference ahead of the fifth anniversary of the March 11 disaster. He said the government is ready to support businesses in Fukushima prefecture to develop renewable energy.

"Fukushima was badly damaged by the nuclear accident. But it is now attracting firms related to solar-power generation and lithium-ion batteries," he said.

"The prefecture is becoming an area that can play a leading role in creating a future energy society. We will provide support to help affected areas get back on their feet."

As Fukushima gains momentum to promote renewable energy, residents from an evacuated village have come up with a new idea.

Iitate is located 40 kilometers northwest of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and all residents were ordered to evacuate the area after the 2011 disaster.

Most of the village is currently designated a restricted residential zone, meaning people aren't supposed to live there.

In a place where signs of livelihood have faded, a small group of people have started a new project. The solar panels on a hillside in the village belong to their private electricity company. They generate 50 kilowatts -- about a year's worth of power for 15 households.

"It's difficult when the weather's cloudy," says Minoru Kobayashi, president of Iitate Denryoku. "The panels' position and of course the sun mean everything."

The company's main office is in Fukushima city. Iitate Denryoku has 6 staff who come from various backgrounds. One is a former organic farmer. Another is an early company retiree.

Yauemon Sato is the man who gave Kobayashi the idea. He's well known in Fukushima for setting up his own power company in another city in the prefecture after the nuclear accident.

Kobayashi was born and raised in Iitate, and his family had been running a farm here, planting rice and breeding cattle. They had to give it all up when the 2011 disaster struck.

Bags of contaminated soil from the cleanup are still lie on his property.

"We have no idea when they'll be taken away," Kobayashi says.

Agriculture had played a central role in the village, but radiation robbed people of their produce and daily lives. Kobayashi was determined to create a new renewable-energy industry.

"We're not able to produce or grow something that people can eat," Kobayashi says. "So, we have to come up with other ways to make a living or the villagers won't come back."

Last February, Iitate Denryoku launched its first solar power project. Currently, 4 sites are in operation and 12 more are being set up.

Here's how the project works: The company asks villagers to let the company set up solar panels on their land. It sells the electricity that's generated to Tohoku Electric Power. Then it uses part of its earnings to pay the villagers as rent for using their land.

The company needs more land for solar panels. Kobayashi spends days searching for suitable pastures and farmland. He seeks cooperation by visiting villagers one by one. But it's difficult to contact local land owners, who are scattered across other communities

Iitate Denryoku, in principle, is supported by the villagers' investment and donations. One of the staff came up with the financing scheme.

Norimichi Chiba used to work for a large company in Tokyo. He decided to retire after the 2011 disaster, and helped set up a geothermal energy power site using hot springs in Fukushima.

Chiba says, the geothermal power site gave locals something to be proud of, and brought the community together. That's how Iitate Denryoku should be, too.

"Renewable energy should be something citizens can be in charge of," says Norimichi Chiba, one of the staff as Iitate Denryoku. "It shouldn't be something controlled by large companies."

There's momentum towards renewable energy in Fukushima Prefecture as a whole. The municipal government announced it aims to become a 100% renewable energy region by the year 2040.

The national government also just launched a project aiming to build power cables for promoting wind power generation and creating hydrogen energy as well.

On Wednesday, a symposium was held to raise funds for restoration projects led by Fukushima residents. Donations were collected from people in the audience. Iitate Denryoku is one of the fund's initiators.

Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi spoke at the event.

"Japan is rich in natural energy sources. We can do without nuclear power because we have a plenty of renewable options such as solar, wind and geothermal," he said.

One of the main themes was how communities can be empowered by entering the renewable energy business.

Another of the speakers was Soren Hermansen, who is from the Danish island of Samso. He helped turn it into the world's first 100-percent renewable energy-powered island.

Hermansen was able to get the 4,000 residents there to shift to natural energy. The project was completed in about 10 years -- a true example of community power.

"We said on my island, that we were going to change to 100% renewable energy, people said, 'no, no, no, this will never happen,'" he told the audience.

Kobayashi met Hermansen for the first time at the event. Hermansen has accomplished what Kobayashi wants to do.

"If he is producing a good example, more will follow, but if not nobody is doing anything. Nothing will ever happen. Of course it's always hard to start, because it's hard to get momentum," Hermansen said.

"It's so encouraging to meet a pioneer," Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi has also started a new experiment in a town next to Iitate. It's called solar-sharing -- setting up panels higher than they usually are. Kobayashi wants to see if crops can be grown and solar energy can be generated on the same patch of land.

The central government and the village are aiming to have residents return starting in the spring of next year. Solar-sharing might help draw more farmers back home.

Kobayashi himself has started breeding Wagyu cows in Miyagi prefecture. In the future, he wants to breed cattle again in Iitate.

"I feel strongest when I have colleagues working with me. It's better than trying to do something alone. When people with different ideas gather, you get a range of plans," Kobayashi says. "So, I have to do my best. I can't die before accomplishing these things."

Kobayashi doesn't know how long it will take to bring a community back, especially after 5 years of not living together. But instead of looking back at what things used to be like, he wants to turn the village into a place of renewed hope.