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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Fukushima disaster survivors promote renewable energy

Kazuaki Hirama

Mar. 7, 2018

Nearly 7 years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck the Tohoku region, triggering the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Both catastrophes disrupted the lives of thousands of people in Fukushima.

Iitate Village is located 40 kilometers from the nuclear power plant. 6000 residents were evacuated after the disaster, and much of the farmland remains contaminated. The destruction made the villagers aware of the importance of renewable energy. This led to the foundation of a solar power company, owned and run by the people of Iitate. But that company is now facing an uncertain future.

In Iitate, the first thing that catches your eye is the large bags that line the farms. The bags are filled with dirt and plants that have been removed from contaminated farmlands. After that, though, you notice the solar panels. They have been installed by a solar power company that was founded by the villagers and is run by them as well.

Muneo Kanno is an important member of the company. He wants the firm to take advantage of the farmlands that are not currently in use. "We learned a lesson from the nuclear disaster. We now know that there’s a huge amount of natural energy around us, waiting for us to use," he says.

The company, Iitate Power, rents neglected farmland and installs solar panels. The firm then sells the electricity that is generated to a major power company. The money earned is used to pay rent to the landowners. The company also helps farmers who have found it difficult to start farming again. "Leaving the land neglected isn’t going to do any good or make any money. And it just makes the landscape so desolate. So being able to get even a small benefit from the land is a plus for us," says a landowner.

So far, 32 solar panels have been installed, and Iitate Power has earned about 50 million yen, or about US$500,000. But the company is now in trouble. The drop in solar energy prices has hit the company hard. Originally, the government set the prices of solar energy higher than those in western countries to promote renewable energy.

But the prices have been lowered to encourage companies to engage in cost reduction efforts. The price is now half as high as it was when the company was founded. Next month, it will drop even lower to 18 yen per kw/h.

In response to the drop in prices, Iitate Power started purchasing cheaper materials from China to cut costs. But it’s still difficult for the company to make a profit. "Our profits don’t match our investments," says Kanno.

At an executive meeting last month, the team discussed ways to turn things around. They didn't see a way out of the crisis. The company made a crucial decision -- to stop installing new solar panels for the time being.

At a meeting held in Tokyo before the 7th anniversary of the disaster, Kanno announced the company’s decision. "The selling price of electricity keeps falling, and honestly, this limits our ability to expand," he said. Many of the people present expressed their support for the company. "I think many people want to support the company. For example, crowd funding would be a creative way to help." "Lowering the selling price will drive the company out of business. We want to give them all the support that we can," they said. "I’m really grateful that there are so many people who sympathize with us," said Kanno.

Kanno refuses to give up. Last spring, the evacuation order on Iitate was lifted. He plans to return to his home, which is now being renovated. Kanno has installed solar panels on the entire roof. He does not want to sell the electricity. Rather, he wants to use it all himself. The importance of self-sufficiency is the message that Kanno now wants to spread. He hopes that this message will resonate and encourage more people to return to the village.

"There’s energy all around us that we can use in our daily lives. When you think about it, the power you use at home can be made from the resources that are already around you. In short, I think local production and local consumption are going to be increasingly important," says Kanno.

The locals are facing a huge challenge as their once-flourishing solar business continues to struggle. But they don't want to give up and stop producing renewable energy. What drives them is their determination to prevent future generations from suffering the way they have.