Fukushima, Japan Accelerating Deployment of Solar to Create Self-Reliant Communities

This March will mark the four-year anniversary of when the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl hit the northeast of Japan. Communities severely affected by the triple-disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown have made a strong commitment to become energy self-reliant by producing safe, clean energy locally for local consumption.

View of Iitate Village, Fukushima Prefecture

The entire village of litate, located at 39 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, was forced to evacuate in order to avoid radiation exposure. To build a self-reliant community, a few of the villagers from litate got together to establish the litate Electric Power Company.

litate is building a 50-kW solar system, and upon completion of the system in February, it will sell the power output to local utility Tohoku Electric Power Co. under the nation’s feed-in tariff (FIT) program. The proceeds from energy sales will be re-invested into the community to build more renewable energy systems.

Map of northeast Japan

These systems will represent “power of the villagers, by the villagers, for the villagers.” Funding for the system comes from villagers who also lease the land upon which the system is built. Energy produced locally will be consumed locally. The proceeds from the investment will be reinvested locally to create new job opportunities. Minoru Kobayashi, the company president, hopes that by circulating money within the village, the company will become a driving force to rebuild a strong community. 

On a much larger scale, the village is currently constructing a 10-MW solar system in a former meadow where decontamination work was completed. For this project, the village has established a special purpose entity (SPI) called “Iitate Madeina Solar Power” with Toko Electrical Construction. Co, a Tokyo-based engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) company. The project is financed by the Toho Bank, Ltd., a regional bank headquartered in Fukushima. The system is expected to become operational in April 2016.

The 10-MW Iitate Madeina Solar Power Plant. Credit: Toko Electrical Construction. Co

Fukushima Leads the Nation with Reserved PV Capacity

Due to radiation exposure risk, it is very important for the city to have a clean, safe energy supply. Fukushima has installed over 270 MW of PV capacity since the disasters. A 6-MW solar photovoltaic (PV) has recently come online at the port of Onahama in Iwaki city, located in the southern part of Fukushima prefecture.  The system was built by Mitsubishi Electric Corp., which also built a 12-MW solar system last August. The two systems together produce 19 GWh of electricity annually.

Driven by a strong desire to become energy independent and revitalize their local economy, the people of Fukushima are expected to continue deploying more solar projects than any other prefectures in Japan.  The prefecture currently leads the nation with the reserved PV capacity under the nation’s FIT program, according to data released by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

At the end of last October, the prefecture had a reserved PV capacity of over 4.2 GW, which is equivalent to 6 percent of the total reserved capacity nationwide.  Out of 4.2 GW reserved, PV systems larger than 2 MW represent 69 percent, with systems ranging from 10 to 50 kW representing 15 percent. Considering the prefecture currently consumes about 1.6 percent of the nation’s total electricity supply, the current large reserved capacity can pose some potential challenges to integrate into the existing grid.

Utilizing Transmission Lines Owned by TEPCO

Homes in Tomioka town, located within a 20-kilometer radius around the damaged area, were totally destroyed and remain untouched because of high radiation levels. Now the town, along with Fukushima prefecture, plans to build a 20-MW solar power plant to revitalize the local community.

The funding for the solar plant will be raised locally and the system will be built over the disaster-affected former farmland near the transmission line owned by Tokyo Power Electric (TEPCO), Japan’s largest electric utility company that serves the Kanto region including Tokyo.  Electricity produced from the 20-MW solar plant will be sold to TEPCO under the FIT program and the proceeds will be re-invested to the region.

Naraha town, part of Futaba District located inside the 20-killometer exclusion zone of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, has also recently announced to develop a 10-MW solar power plant, which will be interconnected to the TEPCO’s transmission line. The proceeds received from electricity sales under the FIT will not only be reinvested into another renewable power projects but also into various other programs to support evacuees directly.

Credit: the METI

Solutions for Overcapacity in Fukushima

Just last October, Tohoku Electric Power Co., which generates and distributes electricity exclusively for Fukushima and six other neighboring prefectures, announced that it temporarily stopped reviewing interconnection applications from FIT project developers. The utility had become overwhelmed by the number of applications and needed time to determine how much more capacity it could accept on its current grid system.

In December, the utility revealed that it would accept 5.52 GW of solar capacity. However, it has already accepted over 5.84 GW of worth of PV capacity from seven prefectures in its service territory, exceeding its planned limit by 0.32 GW.

To allow more interconnected solar, the METI has proposed a stimulus package that would allocate ¥80.9 billion under the supplemental budget for the remainder of this fiscal year, ending March 31. The package will have special funding allocation for the disaster affected prefectures, including Fukushima.

The federal government plans to deploy large-scale battery storage near solar generating plants or along the transmission lines owned by Tohoku Power Electric to increase the interconnection capacity. It is also asking Tohoku Power Electric to give priority to projects in Fukushima to support their rebuilding efforts.

The government is also working with TEPCO to accept excess power generated in the Tohoku region by re-opening the TEPCO’s 500-kV transmission lines, which ironically once used to carry electricity generated by the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini Nuclear Power plant for the Tokyo metropolitan area.

TEPCO has announced that it is going to invest billions of yen to reinforce the Shin Fukushima Transformer installed in the town of Tomioka to accept up to 600 MW worth of new renewable project capacity. The METI will provide solar project developers with subsidies to cover portions of the cost to construct and connect to the grid.

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Junko Movellan is a Solar Industry expert who writes and analyzes the US and Japan PV downstream markets. She has more than 15 years of experience in the PV industry, analyzing industry trends and developing business strategies for global companies. She previously worked as a Senior Analyst at Solarbuzz and as a Market Development Analyst at Kyocera. She is based in California, USA.

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