By Mayumi Watanabe
Fukushima prefecture vowed soon after the accident at TEPCO’s Dai-Ichi nuclear station in March 2011 that the disaster would not define it. True to its word, the area has reinvented itself as a bastion of renewables and energy experimentation that has elicited interest from startups and industry veterans alike.
Before 2011, Fukushima was home to 10 reactors, the second-largest concentration of nuclear power in Japan. Ten years on, the prefecture generates over 80% of its electricity from renewable sources and says this will reach 100% within four more years. In March 2020, one of the world’s largest green hydrogen facilities opened in the local town of Namie.
While it’s unlikely that Fukushima’s new energy blueprint will be adopted wholesale across Japan, the region has become a hotbed of innovation that will have a notable impact nationwide.
Fukushima’s achievements in energy stem from much more than token efforts at reparations.
From ghost town to gas town
In the aftermath of the accident at Dai-Ichi plant, caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Namie became a ghost town. Lying about 20 km north of the NPP, its population was evacuated and put into temporary housing. The town was part of a no-entry zone around the wrecked nuclear station.
Many said life in towns like Namie would never return. Many questioned the rationale and the budgets expended by the government in rehabilitating the lands around the Dai-Ichi site.
Namie has shown a will not only to revive, but to do in a way that’s an example for the rest of the country.
This year, the town’s authorities started construction of an industrial zone that will be fully powered by renewable energy when it opens in 2023. The locality of 1,200 or so has two solar plants and a wind farm. A biomass power plant is due onstream in the coming months. There are feasibility studies under way for a small hydropower plant and even an experimental wave power plant.
“We offer no subsidies,” a Namie town official said. “Sure, the town receives subsidies from the prefectural and national governments for some projects, but that is not why businesses of all types are coming to Namie. They are not here for the government money. They come because there’s an entrepreneurial spirit here.”
The town’s population is slowly starting to recover, despite the lack of available housing. Since the accident, reconstruction focused on infrastructure such as industrial parks, power plants and research centers, leaving housing stock repairs behind.
The industrial revival and the extraordinary circumstances allowed Namie to cut the red tape and open itself up to trials of various alternative energy projects.
Brother Industry is testing hydrogen pipelines in the area, studying their transmission efficiency and safety when the pipes are affixed to electric poles.
The town has its own drone testing ground, and Nissan Motor has used the locality for automated driving trials.
Sumitomo Corp. has plans to build a “multi-vehicular hydrogen service station”. This would be no ordinary stopover for fuel cells. The facility is designed to service both passenger and commercial fuel cell autos, as well as other vehicles that are yet to be created, such as hydrogen bicycles.
Since last March, Namie also plays host to the Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R), one of the world’s top hydrogen production plants. It is situated in the Tanashio Industrial Zone along the coast and has a 10 MW capacity, while also powered by a 20 MW of solar capacity.
FH2R is already connected to the Tohoku Electric grid, which means it can be used as part of the local electricity supply, as well as a hydrogen-generating facility.
The plant made headlines in December last year when it supplied the fuel cell systems that powered rock concerts at the giant Saitama Arena stadium.
FH2R also has plans to add its own hydrogen service station and to conduct on-site smart car system tests. Town officials expect delivery of the first fuel cell vehicles to the town sometime this month.
“All sorts of pioneers have come here, from trading houses to construction firms, carmakers, manufacturers, and academics,” the Namie town official said.
Prefecture-wide rollout of renewables
The rest of Fukushima is much like Namie: renewables-minded. On Feb. 9, the prefecture government said it wants all of the electricity consumed in the region to come from renewable sources by 2025. In 2019, renewables accounted for 80.5% of Fukushima’s power consumption, or 12.07 billion kilowatt hours (kWh).
Based on 2025 power demand forecasts holding flat at 15 billion kWh, the region needs to increase its renewable output by 25%.
Since the 2011 accident, the expansion in local renewables capacity has been immense, rising seven-fold to 2,582 MW by the end of 2019. Most of that is due to the installation of solar farms. Solar capacity has surged to 2,110 MW, which is a whopping 32-fold increase.
This strong expansion convinced Fukushima Souden, a JV between a local power utility and TEPCO, to add new transmission lines in January 2020 in order to link the new solar plants to TEPCO’s grid system, bringing their energy to a wider market.
The solar push has come despite the fact that Fukushima is not a sunny region. The area gets 1,700 hours of sunlight a year, less than the national average of 1,900 hours. However, Fukushima has strong winds, with over 6 m/s on average. It also has the fourth-largest forest lands in the country and a strong agriculture sector, as well as many small rivers.
Heavy snows in the Aezu area could also be turned into an energy source, according to the prefecture’s studies.
Over the next decade, the regional government says it wants to make a concerted effort in non-solar renewable sources.
The reconstruction of Fukushima is far from complete, even ten years on from the disaster. The area’s advances in energy infrastructure and innovation are yet to be matched by a revival in comfort and entertainment facilities and even basic lifestyle essentials, such as supermarkets and drug stores.
Still, Namie officials say the local mood is upbeat and motivated. There is a strong collaborative spirit and belief in entrepreneurship.
“Every day there are problems, but people help each other.” The key to any real reconstruction is “comradery, not money.”
Renewables Capacity in Fukushima
|In 2011||End of FY2019|
|Solar||66 MW||2,100 MW|
|Wind||144 MW||177 MW|
|Small hydro||14 MW||17 MW|
|Geothermal||65 MW||30 MW (due to a plant closure)|
|Biomass||73 MW||250 MW|
This story originally appeared in Japan NRG Weekly, the flagship report from the Japan NRG team, which prepares independent intelligence and analysis on Japanese energy markets, companies, people and policies.