Fukushima aims to be a center of energy innovation

The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, wrecking the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has significantly altered the nation’s long-term energy strategy in ways that may ripple across the rest of the world. The Japanese government promptly formulated a basic plan for recovery and founded one of the world’s top renewable energy research sites in Fukushima Prefecture, with plans to build up related industries.

The Basic Energy Plan issued in 2014 includes a shift in policy toward reducing dependence on nuclear energy to the greatest extent possible, through such measures as increasing energy efficiency, conserving energy and promoting renewable sources.

Fukushima Prefecture’s policies have also shifted significantly. Since the 2011 disaster, its new vision is to become a pioneer by producing 100% of the primary energy consumed within the prefecture from renewable sources by 2040.

Historically, Fukushima Prefecture generated hydroelectric power using the abundant water resources and transmitted that power to the Tokyo area. In addition, the so-called Hamadori region in the eastern part of the prefecture is blessed with sunlight and is ideal for solar power generation, and the central part of the prefecture — for example, the Nunobiki Plateau — is well-suited for wind power. The prefecture has a variety of other renewable energy resources — including geothermal power and biomass power. In fact, in 2009, the proportion of Fukushima’s primary energy supply that came from renewable sources was already at 20%. The goal now is to raise that to 100% by 2040. About 2 gigawatts of solar power, 4GW of wind power (2GW of it offshore wind power), 230,000kW of geothermal power and 500,000kW of biomass power will be needed.

Various support measures are critical, not the least of which is a feed-in tariff program. Within the prefecture, the amount of household (less than 10kW) and nonhousehold (10kW or more) solar power systems introduced jumped sharply to 100MW in 2012, after implementation of the feed-in tariff program, and to 200MW in 2013. As of last year, it had reached 590MW. There are still issues to be tackled, however. Because the capacity of transmission lines in the prefecture is not very large, the amount of solar power generating equipment that was introduced exceeded what could be connected to the grid. Subsidies to strengthen the power grid have been launched, but a full solution has not yet been reached.

While not a problem unique to Fukushima Prefecture, the introduction of wind and geothermal power still lags compared with solar energy, and wind power at present is no more than 16MW. A field test of an offshore wind farm is going forward off the coast of Iwaki, but commercial operations have not yet begun. Wind power will likely be the key to achieving 100% renewable energy in the prefecture.

Future of renewables

For Fukushima to become a pioneering region for renewable energies, core technologies are necessary. Based on the government’s basic rebuilding plan, the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute, part of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, was established in Koriyama in April 2014. The Fukushima institute has two major underlying missions. One is to promote world-class, cutting-edge renewable energy research, and the other is to build up industry and help reconstruct the disaster-stricken area. The former will be done over a medium- to long-term time frame, while the latter involves short-term technology development linked to business. The Fukushima institute is now developing activities based on six themes:

Research and verification of advanced integration of renewable energy sources
Production and utilization technology for hydrogen carriers
Advanced technology for wind power generation
High-performance modules with thin crystalline silicon solar cells
Technology for effective and sustainable use of geothermal resources
Potential assessment of ground-source heat pump system and its system optimization technology
Once developed, these technologies will be verified both within the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute and externally, with the aim of speeding up commercialization. In the demonstration field, technologies for integrating renewable energies will be tested on a practical scale to a certain extent, using wind, solar, hydrogen carriers and energy networks. Such facilities are rare throughout the world and are drawing visitors from around the globe. Partnerships are also being pursued with overseas research institutes, and joint research including personnel exchanges has begun with the likes of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems.

One test facility slated to open this year is for large-scale inverters — equipment that converts direct current into alternating current, which is critical for energy networks. In the past, large-scale inverters could only be tested at foreign institutions, and being able to do it in Japan will help make development more efficient for Japanese companies. These inverters must have a variety of functions besides just DC-to-AC conversion in order to harmoniously and stably integrate renewable energy sources into the power grid, and it is expected that this kind of test facility will also be useful in developing those new functions.

The challenge of connecting renewable energy sources to the grid has also heightened the need to store electric energy. In the case of hydrogen — in addition to the conventional methods of storage using high-pressure gas, hydrogen-absorbing alloys and very-low-temperature liquid hydrogen — a technology has recently been developed that stores the element by converting toluene into methylcyclohexane. At the Fukushima institute, hydrogen carrier technology is being developed using this organic hydrogen. The method offers the merit of being able to store hydrogen stably at room temperature and normal pressure for longer periods than when using other methods. Still, one problem is that extracting hydrogen from methylcyclohexane requires energy equaling nearly 30% of the hydrogen energy.

Seed support

It will not be easy to promote renewable energy industries in places in Fukushima that do not already have an accumulation of foundational technology. To that end, the Fukushima institute in 2014 launched the Seeds Support Program for companies in the disaster areas. The aim of this program is to take any seeds of technology, even from companies that have no experience in renewable energies, and evaluate and test those seeds or provide advanced technology support to help create new industries. To date, support has been provided for 63 proposals, a number of which have been commercialized. The organization is also participating in the cultivation of human resources by taking on students from local universities and dispatching lecturers.

In this way, the Fukushima institute is undertaking research and development from both a short-term and long-term perspective and is steadily producing results.

It is impossible to calculate what was lost during the unprecedented 2011 earthquake, but since then, the country has come together and begun rebuilding. Charting a new course in the form of renewable energy is not something that can be done by the government alone, or by the business world alone, or by research institutions alone. If all of those do not unify and work together, it will be impossible to make renewable energy a new pillar of business or the source of 100% of energy needs. Whether or not Fukushima can be resurrected on the strength of new industry will be a barometer measuring the prefecture’s true reconstruction.

Via Michio Kondo is supervisory innovation coordinator at the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. This article was first published in Japanese in the April 2016 issue of the monthly magazine Trends in the Sciences, edited with the cooperation of the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) and later translated into English by Nikkei Asian Review.

Give it a share: