Tohoku Update: Winds of change

How renewable energy is revolutionising Tohoku and offering an alternative to nuclear
Movers and shakers from Co-op Tohoku Green Energy Corporation at the wind power plant's opening ceremony

By Nick Narigon

Three wind turbines stand high above the Akita prefecture seaboard, churning electricity powered by the breeze blowing in from the Sea of Japan. The wind power plant, which began operation in October, generates enough electricity to supply 4,500 households annually, and reduces C02 emissions by 6,980 tons per year, the equivalent of the amount produced by 1,000 cars.

The electricity produced, which is sold to Tohoku Electric Power, is expected to raise annual sales of ¥330 million for three co-ops in Miyagi, Iwate and Akita that teamed together to build the plant. ‘Our goal is to disseminate renewable energy in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident,’ says Miyagi Co-op co-chair Hiroshi Miyamoto. ‘And to encourage [renewable energy] production throughout the Tohoku region.’

The three co-ops view renewable energy as a viable means to help the region recover from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that decimated homes and businesses, and disabled the nuclear power plant. Hideyoshi Ohara, general manager of Miyagi Co-op’s environmental management office, says the group’s vision is for a Japanese society that does not rely on nuclear power, and that building the three billion yen wind power plant was a practical first step.

He says that in the future, the group, collectively called Co-op Tohoku Green Energy Corporation, will expand into photovoltaic solar and biomass energy production. ‘We believe that expanding renewable energy is important not only to Tohoku, but also to Japan.’

After the 2011 disaster, all 42 of Japan’s commercial nuclear reactors were turned off, and in the time since, only three have been put back in operation. As a result, in 2012 the government implemented a feed-in tariff system, based on Germany’s, that spurs investment in renewable energy by requiring utilities to buy electricity from renewable energy sources at a rate set higher than the market price.

The tariffs have been lowered every year by design, which Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies, says has not hindered renewable energy companies since technological advances have decreased production costs. Since the feed-in tariff went into effect, solar power has doubled and renewable energy’s portion of Japan’s energy mix increased from 10 to 16 percent.

The government is well on its way to reaching its target of 22 percent by 2030. However, Iida says that target is low when compared to the EU, which plans to double renewable energy generation to 45 percent by 2030. Japan’s biggest issue, Iida says, is a cap set in 2015 limiting renewable energy companies’ ability to connect to the electricity grid system, which is tightly controlled by utility companies.

‘In the coming years, it will be more difficult for renewables in Japan,’ says Iida, noting the government is giving priority to nuclear (with a goal of 22 percent of the energy mix by 2030) and fossil fuels. ‘If we cannot connect to the grid, we cannot expand renewables. It is a matter of policy.’

Renewable energy plants in Tohoku have an advantage, says Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute, because the permanently damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant fed into the grid that supplies electricity to Tokyo, Japan’s largest consumer base. That grid is now wide open for renewable energy producers, like the three food co-ops in Tohoku.

‘[Co-op Tohoku Green Energy Corporation] is one of the symbolic activities after March 11 because the local community got together to own and produce their own energy by themselves,’ says Ohbayashi. ‘The Tohoku area has huge renewable energy potential, so that has to be the key for recovery.’

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