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JAPAN: Renewable Energy Grabs Limelight

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jun 29 2011 (IPS) - After decades of being relegated to the sidelines, Japan’s fledging renewable energy industry is now basking in the limelight as the nation struggles to cope with the Fukushima nuclear accident.

“Finally we are being viewed seriously by the public, government, and industry as a viable solution to Japan’s energy needs,” said Akira Taniguchi, spokesperson for Ohisama (Solar) Energy Company located in Iida City, Nagano in north Japan. “We hope the attention will bring long awaited official support for alternative energy,”

The private company has worked several years on the renewable energy front in Iida, a city of 3,800 households, through the launch of the Community Fund in 2004 that pays for solar panels.

The Fund has installed solar panels in almost four percent of homes in the city, higher than the national average that hovers at less than one percent in small communities. The scheme includes the purchase of extra energy generated among Community Fund households for redistribution.

Excluding hydro, renewable energy comprises less than two percent of Japan’s power industry compared to 30 percent for nuclear power. Japan has built 54 reactors based on a national policy that viewed nuclear power as crucial to economic growth.

But this is all set to change, with the Fukushima nuclear reactors damaged by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and gigantic tsunami that swept north-east Japan on Mar. 11.

Against fast depleting public support for nuclear power, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has vowed to develop an energy saving society by increasing renewable energy – solar, wind, biomass and hydro sources – to 20 percent by 2020.

The policy has been hailed as a pillar of the massive recovery plans for the devastated north-east areas.

Another important step taken by Kan is to liberalise the energy market for electricity, paving the way for newcomers and weakening the control of large and rich utility companies that promote heavily government-subsidised nuclear power.

The steps are drastic in a country where nuclear power was practically indispensable. Green experts say they are up against public reaction to the ongoing massive drive in the country to conserve electricity following the closure of nuclear power facilities.

Factories are bracing for reduced manufacturing and profits, less frequent commuter trains, and a darker capital Tokyo that is currently neon-lit.

“Electricity shortages were unheard of till the Fukushima accident and this new experience is frightening the public, which could lead to support for nuclear power,” pointed out Hisayo Takada, an energy expert at Greenpeace Japan.

Takada told IPS that renewable energy supporters must work hard to show the nervous public that renewable sources are a highly stable source of energy and are safer and kinder to the environment.

She insists there are plenty of examples in Japan to prove her point.

Take the Green Power Certificate programme established by the Japan Natural Energy Company in 2001. The certification system, the first in Japan, enables consumers to purchase solar heat panels or snow energy by paying a premium for the certificate.

The company, comprised of engineers, experts on new alternative energy, and consumer groups, has a single goal: the greening of household energy. Company employee Hirano Matsubara says he supports Kan’s plan to open the energy market to new entrants offering a variety of energy sources.

“The opportunity is now available to convince the public they no longer have to be passive supporters of powerful nuclear power companies. They have a choice to contribute to a greener future for themselves by making their own decision on what kind of energy they want to buy,” he explained to IPS.

Green activists are aggressively providing people with information while also paying special attention to the business appeal of renewable energy when new liberalisation regulations come into force.

Engineer Tadashi Nemoto is a case in point. The biotechnology scientist built in 2000 what he describes as an “independent house” which symbolises a system where consumers can choose their household’s source of energy.

“The decision to become the owner of my own energy by installing renewable sources was a desire I had harboured for a long time. This is the future for Japan,” he said.

Nemoto has set solar heat panels that provide heating during the winter without entailing any electricity cost. The initial investment was almost 30,000 dollars but, with almost no electricity bills, he has no financial regrets.

“The lesson from Fukushima is to view energy not only economically but rather as a means of contributing to a safer environment for the future,” he told IPS.

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