The Fukushima nuclear disaster irreversibly affected the land of Fukushima, casting a sad shadow for the farmers who had cultivated their home land for generations. However, an initiative of a farmer has created a ray of hope by sharing the sunlight between agriculture and electric power generation.
A farmer’s life after the Fukushima nuclear disaster
Located in the Abukuma Plateau of northeastern Fukushima, Iitate Village had been certified as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan” thanks to its typical rural mountainous landscape and its unique local diligent culture called “madei”, which refers to fulfilling all your tasks with a pure, sincere heart. Farmers had been engaged in cattle production and the Wagyu brand “Iitate-gyu” had earned a high grade. Besides this, its highland vegetable and specialty products had attracted many people in city areas.
Everything changed in March 2011, with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. One month after the disaster, Iitate Village was designated as an evacuated zone where the inhabitants were forced to leave the village within a month because of the risk of radiation exposure.
Minoru Kobayashi is a farmer who had been engaged in cattle fattening and rice cropping for more than 30 years in Iitate Village. While evacuating his cattles to Zao Town in Miyagi, he had a life-changing encounter with Yauemon Sato, the head of Yamatogawa sake brewery in Kitakata City, Fukushima. Sato has been involved in the regional development of Iitate Village long before the disaster. In fact, he had always used the rice from Iitate Village for his special sake brewing, so when the nuclear disaster hit and he supported the evacuation of the population as much as he could, Kobayashi was among those he helped. Soon after their first encounter, Sato asked the farmer to start rice cropping in Kitakata in order to revive the special sake. Kobayashi accepted the challenge, and moved to Kitakata with his wife in the spring of 2012.
Start-up of Iitate Electric Power
While living in Kitakata and making frequent round trips to Zao, Kobayashi often shared his concern with Sato about the uncertain future of Iitate Village. The government had proceeded the decontamination activities in the affected areas including on the agricultural lands, however, in Iitate Village, five centimetres of the surface soil was scraped uniformly, meaning that the traditionally cultivated fertile ground was lost. This meant that it would be really hard to resume agriculture in Iitate Village even if the designation was resolved.
On the other hand, the Feed-in-Tariff legislation started in July 2012. That’s when Sato and his colleagues started thinking and planning to build and eventually establishing their community-based renewable company, AiPower, enstating Sato as its CEO. By doing concrete solar projects, Sato understood that renewable energy and feed-in-tariff were enabling communities not only to secure a stable income stream but also to contribute to local sustainable development.
Sato and Kobayashi then came up with a brilliant idea: they would establish a renewable energy business entity owned by the evacuees from Iitate Village in order to install solar PV on the ground of the decontaminated area in the village.
“The evacuees from Iitate Village lost their dignity and had uneasy days. When three years had passed since the evacuation, and the decontamination progressed, it became realistic for me to come back to the village,” explains Kobayashi. “Adversely I felt increasingly anxious about life in the village. So, thinking about the future, we consulted with people who were also concerned and we decided to make a living out of the revenue from renewable energy and contribute to the reconstruction of the village.”
A team of committed and motivated people
Kobayashi decided to work on Iitate Village’s community-based renewable energy business and called the evacuees for the investment. The new business entity “Iitate Electric Power” was launched in September 2014. Kobayashi became the CEO, Sato the executive vice-president, Norimichi Chiba was operating as executive managing director and Kei Kondo as the chief officer of Fukushima office.
Before the disaster, Chiba had worked as an executive manager in a foreign capital company and never thought about energy issues. The nuclear disaster completely changed his mind, so he resigned his job and engaged in renewable energy development in Fukushima with his skillful business development capacity.
Originally from Tokyo, Kondo had studied agriculture and learned about organic farming. Before the nuclear disaster, he moved to Nihonmatsu City, Fukushima, to start an organic farm. After the disaster, Kondo had to give up his land as its soil was deeply affected by the radiations. While exploring various ways for the reconstruction of Fukushima, he found farmers in Germany were one of the main drivers of the famous “Energiewende” and he saw the hope in renewable energy. When he met with Sato and Kobayashi, he decided almost instantly to join Iitate Electric Power.
With those committed team members and the support of AiPower, Iitate Electric Power started planning community based solar projects. But they soon realised they still had a long way to go, as they first had to face serious challenges.
Barriers in grid connection
At first, Iitate Electric Power planned a utility-scale ground mounted solar project in Iitate Village’s agricultural land. The idea sounded quite reasonable: the farmers were not going to be able to use their land for agriculture for several years or decades, but they could still produce electricity from solar PV installed on this same land after the decontamination, therefore make a living out of it. But things turned out to be more complicated than that.
On September 25th 2014, Tohoku Electronic Power Company announced the suspension of additional grid connections. Because the regional electric power systems are still vertically integrated in Japan, those transmission system operators are not independent from the conventional utilities and not ready for flexible grid management. Therefore, in the course of rapid expansion of grid connected solar power, the transmission system operators needed time to adapt to such change. Therefore, Iitate Electric Power was forced to give up its initial plan.
Because this happened right after the launching of Iitate Electric Power, the announcement discouraged everyone. But they did not give up their mission. They changed the plan from a single large system to a number of small distributed systems which do not require tough negotiation for the grid connection (as they stay under 50 kW). With this new plan in mind, they installed the first system of 50 kW solar PV beside an elderly home in Iitate Village in January 2015.
Sharing solar between plants and PV
Iitate Electric Power’s new plan included solar sharing systems, which is one of the most unique renewable energy innovations in Japan.
The solar sharing system was originally invented by the researcher and practitioner, Akira Nagashima. He found that plants only needed a certain amount of solar radiation and that an excess radiation was not utilised over the area, which brought him to the idea of sharing the excess radiation with solar PV to generate electricity. He tested and collected data, then the optimum setting of solar sharing system was established.
There were several pioneer solar sharing systems in some places around the Kanto area, however, the legal regulation of agricultural land use blocked the deployment of solar sharing. Considering this barrier, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery investigated the situation, and on March 31st 2013, the Ministry announced a guideline for solar PV development in agricultural land. The guideline outlines that a certain sort of agricultural land can be temporarily converted as long as the farmer continues agriculture and its yield should not be lower than 80% of the annual average. This guideline enabled smoother procedure for solar sharing development.
So, Iitate Electric Power decided to focus their work on solar sharing in agricultural land in the village. With this, they started distributed solar business planning, whereby the feasibility of dozens of places is investigated and power is installed in as many as possible. As a result, a total of 1,166 kW solar system was installed by October 2017 and an additional 500 kW are to be installed soon.
Community sustainability and solidarity
The story of Iitate Village is about its inhabitants, and about the farmers’ adaptation. They were forced to leave their homes, they were all anxious and unsure about the future, though they have no responsibility in the nuclear accident. The people who were interested in the reconstruction of Fukushima, and those who supported renewable energy, felt very encouraged by the persistent efforts and actions of Iitate Electric Power; whatever barriers they face, they never give up!
This is exactly the worth aspect of community power for us to look into. Often renewables are discussed in technological, economic or legal contexts. In addition to those contexts, stories of community power always remind us that renewables are the tools for community’s sustainability and solidarity. And such aspect includes trans-generational responsibility.
‘Maybe only older generations will come back to the village. But if us senior guys show the efforts we made for the future of Iitate Village and leave some opportunity for life, then younger generations just might take action of their own,’ concludes Kobayashi.