By Kat Lansdorf
Atop a small hill on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu sits a small solar farm with big, broad panels lined up in rows, tilting to catch the sun. Lush vegetation creeps over the edges of the surrounding fence. In the center of the panels, there’s a tall marble gravestone, with an inscription in Japanese.
“Remember that this family evacuated Futaba town, Fukushima prefecture,” it reads, “and moved here due to the nuclear accident following the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011.”
The grave belongs to Hiroyuki Endo, a supervisor and maintenance worker at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. He fled Fukushima with his family after the disaster and settled nearly 1,000 miles away, as far south as they could drive. He and his family decided to build this solar farm for a living. When Hiroyuki suddenly died four years ago of a brain aneurysm, his wife, Chiyomi Endo, took over.
“My biggest wish is for renewable energy to take over,” Endo said. “Look at my old home. It’s going to be a storage site for nuclear waste. We can’t deal with that kind of waste forever.”
“Almost anyone could register”
Endo’s wish may not come true. Her family entered the renewable energy business at just the right time, when every nuclear reactor in Japan was taken offline. To encourage new investment, the government passed a law requiring utility companies to pay renewable energy producers high compensation, known as feed-in tariffs.
In the years immediately after the 2011 disaster, “The price was so generous and the regulations were so loose — almost anyone could register,” said Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies in Tokyo.
Some, like Chiyomi and her husband, jumped in to build smaller, local operations, while corporations rushed to build massive solar and wind farms. Renewable energy production in Japan — particularly solar — increased year after year, nearly doubling in the nine years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
But in 2018, the Japanese government began backpedaling on the feed-in tariffs, announcing that it would reduce them by more than half, as utility companies passed the cost onto consumers and energy bills skyrocketed.
And, Iida points out, it has become increasingly difficult for renewables to connect into the power grid.
“The big electricity monopolies have set up a kind of barrier to stop the rapid increase of renewables,” said Iida. He notes that the utilities often favor their own power plants, which burn imported coal or natural gas. With few homegrown energy sources other than its previous production of nuclear power, Japan is one of the world’s top importers of both coal and natural gas. Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan had planned to reduce its dependence on coal by more than half in the coming decade; it has instead increased.
After initially prioritizing renewables in response to the disaster, a change in government rules in 2015 gave Japan’s utility companies greater flexibility to shut out alternative energy producers.
Fossil fuels front and center — except in Fukushima
Japan’s reliance on fossil fuels after the Fukushima disaster has worried climate groups, which say the country is not doing nearly enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a major driver of global warming. Scientists say the world needs to essentially eliminate new carbon emissions by 2050 to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Nuclear reactors do not directly produce carbon dioxide, and even after the disaster, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party began pushing to restart them, arguing that it would be the best way for Japan to combat climate change while having a stable, homegrown energy source. So far, nine of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors have restarted, but many more are slated for decommissioning as the cost of upgrading them with new safety regulations implemented after 2011 becomes too great.
In the meantime, Japan is rolling out major new coal operations, in stark contrast with other developed countries. Critics say the country is headed in the wrong direction, keeping fossil fuels — which currently account for more than two-thirds of Japan’s energy supply — front and center for now.