FUKUSHIMA – Parcels of farmland totaling 250 hectares near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant are returning to life and being covered with solar panels, amid government incentives to invest in renewable power.
At least one village has set up its own tiny power company, and together the solar farms are scheduled to generate about 160 megawatts of electricity.
Tohoku Electric Power Co. will buy the output, according to prefectural and municipal officials in Fukushima Prefecture.
Japan strictly regulates the conversion of farmland to other uses, to keep a lid on disorderly development. The cases in Fukushima Prefecture were made possible after the central government eased restrictions as an exceptional measure to promote reconstruction following the quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Tohoku in March 2011.
Under the measure, such farmland conversion needs to be part of municipal governments’ reconstruction plans.
It was driven by a program that the central government adopted in July 2012 requiring major power suppliers to purchase electricity generated from solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources at set prices.
Solar power is the easiest renewable to install because the equipment is simple. It was also considered profitable due to relatively high purchase prices, a prefectural official said.
Now, an unexpected rush of entries into the solar power sector has been pushing down purchase prices.
“Further increase in solar power generation is unlikely because of dwindling profitability,” said an official in the village of Iitate, where two large solar power plants are currently planned.
Given the circumstances, an effort is now underway to promote solar power generation while trying to keep farmland intact. Under the so-called solar sharing system, solar panels are positioned so that crops can grow beneath them.
Solar sharing is being tested by Iitate Denryoku, a power company set up by residents of Iitate, which initially pursued large-scale solar power generation but has shifted its approach due to the glut of solar power.
“Whether crops grown there will be sold is uncertain, given public concern about radiation,” said Iitate Denryoku President Minoru Kobayashi, who was a dairy farmer in the village until the disaster. “If solar power generation provides a stable revenue source, this will become an incentive for people to resume farming there.”