The future looks bright for Fukushima farmers

Farmers in Fukushima are turning to “solar sharing,” a process by which they can generate solar power on the same land as they already grow crops. This process will allow them to sell solar power for use on the national grid, via utility companies.

This is certainly a novel enterprise. Fukushima’s farming industry was badly affected by last year’s nuclear accident. The regions farmers are hoping to sell the power to help cover the losses they have suffered due to the nuclear accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima nuclear plant. It is believed that most of the farmers will invest the money generated from the sale of the electric power into improving their existing arable land. The ‘solar sharing’ process is in principle really rather simple: solar panels are erected on poles over existing arable land. In order to ensure a sufficient volume of light reaches the crops underneath, the amount of light that reaches the soil is carefully controlled by tilting the position of the solar panels according to the position of the daytime sun. It is, to put it simply, a sort of mechanical ‘sunflower effect.’

Solar sharing was first used in 2004, in Chiba prefecture, and then spread to other prefectures, including Aichi, Mie and Ibaraki. Due to a government scheme introduced last July, electric power companies are now obliged to buy power generated by renewable energy sources at fixed prices. However, the government have set conditions for farmers wanting to participate in the scheme. Importantly, they must continue to cultivate the land itself, and the annual crop yield of the arable land must not fall below 80% of the regional average. This is to prevent farmers from abandoning farming and using the government scheme as their primary source of income instead. Rather the scheme is intended as a ‘stop-gap’ for farmers affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident. Ichiro Hirata, a farmer, whose land is being used for the project, said: “Even if shipments from this area resume someday, my crops will not sell for the time being due to groundless rumours of contamination. Until prices recover, I can now cover the loss by selling electric power.”

However, a local government official did counsel caution: “While solar sharing could help our farmers, damage caused by rumours relating to the nuclear accident could drive them out of business before they even get a chance to try it.”

Yet the notion of solar sharing is gaining ground in Japan. The town government of Aizubange is also considering introducing solar sharing. Moreover, farmers in Sendai have also proposed introducing a block solar sharing scheme. Even in Iwate, a local government official said that they had received numerous inquiries from farmers and local agricultural committees enquiring about how to introduce solar sharing.

Michio Sakemoto, Director of Solar Sharing Kyokai, said: “If the projects in Fukushima prefecture prove successful, we want to encourage farmers in all of the disaster-hit areas to introduce the solar sharing method as a way to keep using their farmland in the most effective and productive way.”

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Sources used include: The Japan News and Japan Times

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