Nuke-shy firms launch green energy initiatives



Moves by businesses and citizens to set up renewable energy plants at the regional level have been spreading in the hope of breaking away from nuclear power in light of the man-made disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In the city of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Houtoku Energy Co. has been set up by 38 small and midsize companies, including a “kamaboko” fish sausage maker and a fish market.

“After the March 11 disaster, I thought (continuing to rely on nuclear plants) won’t work anymore. Besides, when there is no place to abandon nuclear waste, setting up nuclear plants is just like building apartments without toilets,” Houtoku Energy President Takeo Minomiya said.

In late January, the company set up 256 solar panels on the roof of an elementary school to generate 50,804 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to run 14 households. It is also building a large solar power plant in the city for 300 households.

The company will sell the electricity to Tokyo Electric Power Co. under a feed-in tariff system that requires utilities to buy electricity generated from renewable energy at fixed prices. The power can also be used at the school during disasters.

“Instead of just lamenting the current situation, we wanted to take action to make Japan a better place,” said Minomiya, a former board member of Sony Corp.

Since its establishment in December 2012, Houtoku Energy has raised ¥58 million in investment. In January, it also began soliciting investments worth ¥100,000 each from citizens.

Minomiya said he hopes to take advantage of Odawara’s rich natural environment, including its forests and rivers, to generate power from renewable energy. The energy will be used for the region’s needs, with the profits passed on to local investors in the form of dividends.

Elsewhere in Japan, citizens have funded solar power plants and wind farms. Such initiatives include Shizuoka Future Energy Co. in Shizuoka Prefecture and Satsuma Shizen Energy LLC in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Some companies are even generating electricity by using food waste, including from “udon” noodles from factories in Kagawa Prefecture and pulp left over from making mandarin orange juice in Ehime Prefecture.

Noriaki Yamashita, senior researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, said there are more than 100 such local-level power plants throughout Japan.

“The 2011 nuclear disaster raised awareness among people . . . and the number of such power plants could explode going forward,” if the feed-in tariff system becomes more popular, he said.

The government said in its latest draft energy policy that it considers nuclear energy an important energy source. Japan’s most influential business lobby, Keidanren, has been calling for the restart of idled nuclear reactors.

But such views do not represent all business owners, especially small and midsize companies, said Teisuke Suzuki, executive vice president of fish sausage-maker Suzuhiro Kamaboko Co. in Odawara and one of the central figures who drove the movement to set up Houtoku Energy.

He brought together small and midsize businesses nationwide to form the Network of Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs for a Sustainable Business and Energy Future, which holds seminars on renewable energy and helps establish self-sustaining energy systems in communities.

After radioactive cesium was detected in Ashigara tea produced in the area, even though Odawara is about 300 km away from the crippled Fukushima plant, his company lost customers immediately after the disaster started, he said, noting that a clean and safe environment is a prerequisite for any business.

The subsequent rolling blackouts implemented by Tepco, operator of the Fukushima plant, also hit his factory.

“I felt my business was in danger,” he said, adding that he realized the need to generate green energy in a regional community so that his company would not be totally dependent on big power companies or the government.

Suzuki’s movement slowly gained support from small and midsize companies and the number of business owners supporting the network has grown to about 300, he said.

“We may not be able to do something big from the outset but it is important to start small activities,” he said. “By sharing information about local activities to generate green energy, we hope that people in other communities will realize they can also do something themselves.”