Solar plant cleans Kawasaki image

Infamous for pollution, the city turns to renewables

by Hiroko Nakata

Staff Writer

Few people may realize there is a giant solar power plant in the heart of the Tokyo metropolis, where available open land is scarce.

But in Kawasaki, Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s 11-hectare Ukishima plant, with its 37,926 solar panels, is proving the exception.

The rent-free plant sits atop a landfill adjacent to Tokyo’s Haneda airport and the Tama River estuary, thus the site is not near any sun-blocking high-rises.

“People from about 20 municipal governments came over here to see our plant in the past month,” said Iwao Shibayama, a senior official in charge of renewable energy in the Kawasaki Municipal Government.

The Ukishima plant, sitting over Kawasaki’s incinerated refuse, started operations Aug. 10 in a joint project of the city and Tepco, which will also run the nearby 23-hectare solar power plant on man-made Ogishima Island.

The two plants combined generate 20,000 kw and form one of the largest sources of solar power nationwide.

As providers of renewable energy, huge solar plants are generating keen interest amid the crisis at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and political calls to lessen the nation’s dependence on atomic energy, which before the March 11 disasters accounted for some 30 percent of Japan’s electricity.

The nation’s 10 power utilities also see construction of mega solar plants as part of their long-term goal. They hope to build them at 30 sites, including Ukishima, and generate a combined 140,000 kw by fiscal 2020.

The Ukishima plant is lucky in many ways.

“There are a number of conditions regarding how this plant is used, but we’ve taken advantage of the drawbacks,” Shibayama said, adding the site is ideal for solar power.

Restrictions on high-rise construction around Haneda airport limited Kawasaki’s growth options, but the site turned out to become a shadow-free environment.

Kawasaki also can’t build structures on the landfill for 20 years until it finishes purifying the incinerated refuse that makes up the soil. That’s why the city agreed three years ago to let Tepco build and operate the Ukishima plant for free. The city meanwhile receives fixed-asset taxes from Tepco, Shibayama said.

A prime goal of hosting the solar plant is to improve the city’s smokestack image, he said.

“Kawasaki was once infamous for industrial pollution, and some people still have that image,” he continued. “With this solar power project, we have an invisible but enormous attribute.”

The location is also convenient for Tepco. The utility doesn’t need to lay down a new power grid to send electricity generated at Ukishima, as there is already one set up for factories on other parts of the island.

But experts are split on whether enormous solar power plants will take root in a big way.

“Mega solar power generation is not yet very efficient,” said Shinichiro Takiguchi, executive senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute.

If plant locations are remote and inexpensive, they may be far from existing high-voltage electric transmission lines. Building new lines would be an additional cost for utilities, he said.

Solar panels and related components also are highly expensive, adding to operating costs, he added.

Experts estimate that a home solar power system would cost ¥40 per kwh, against ¥15 to ¥20 per kwh in the case of wind power, biomass, large-scale hydrogen-generated electricity or geothermal heat.

Takiguchi said he wants to see how solar power prices are set using the feed-in tariff bill that is expected to clear the Diet next week.

“The government has to choose whether it sets lower prices to support industries (that consume electricity) or higher prices to develop renewable energy businesses,” he said.

Huge solar power plants are also catching the attention of other industries.

Trading house Mitsui & Co. plans to set up a fund with Tokio Marine Asset Management Co. to build more than 10 big plants nationwide, each capable of generating 1,000 to 2,000 kw.

Masayoshi Son, president of the Softbank Corp. telecommunications group, plans to set up more than 10 huge solar generators across the nation in cooperation with local governments.