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Sunday, July 15, 2012

BIG IN JAPAN

Aging Village shows the way with switch to solar


Eighty kilometers from Oi, Fukui Prefecture, is the village of Sanno, Hyogo Prefecture — 11 households, population 42, average age 60 plus.

There's nothing special about Oi except for its nuclear reactors, one of which earlier this month became the first to be reactivated since the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear meltdown crisis 16 months ago.

Until March 31 there was nothing special about Sanno either.

It was just another aging, depopulated agricultural community, typical of the dying Japanese countryside. (Once politically independent, it was incorporated in 2004 into the city of Tamba, population 67,000.) Residents farmed their paddies, collected their pensions, admired the fireflies in season — and that was about it.

On March 31, the village of Sanno went solar. Along the river is a bank of 216 solar panels. The sign alongside reads, "Sanno Neighborhood Association Solar Power Generating Installation." According to the weekly Josei Seven, which tells the story, Sanno is the first municipality in Japan to produce all its own electricity from renewable energy — a splendid declaration of independence while the nation wallows in nuclear angst, indecision and inertia.

More wonderful still, Josei Seven marvels, is that the initiative, planning and execution are due entirely to the local "jijibaba" (old folks) who to begin with knew little about electricity generation, less about nuclear power, nothing at all about solar power and not much about political power. The message is: If these people can do it, who can't? Corollary: since these people can do it and have done it, why isn't anybody else doing it?

Bucolic Sanno had existed for decades in the shadow of nuclear power plants without anyone giving it much thought. That changed of course on March 11, 2011. What if a similar catastrophe struck Oi? Sanno would hardly escape irradiation. Interestingly enough, though, the solar initiative originally had little to do with nuclear fears. It emerged as a possible solution to a more pedestrian concern — a financial squeeze.

The problem was this: The Neighborhood Association carried out such functions as maintaining agricultural storage facilities, managing the town hall and so on. Every month it collected operating fees from the 11 households. As the population dwindled, the fees went up — to ¥5,000 a month, ¥60,000 a year. For aging farmers scraping by and dependent on their pensions, it was a major burden. How could it be lightened? Wasn't there some project or other they could undertake that would bring in revenue?

The nuclear crisis had stoked talk of solar power, and Association chairman Yasuhiro Hosoda put two and two together: Couldn't Sanno produce solar energy? There was plenty of space. It would revive the community, be a plus on all sides. Yes, but where would the money come from?

As it happened, money was available. Thirty years ago the prefecture had bought some local land; the ¥21 million it had paid was still there, waiting for a project worthy of it. Could this be it?

The Association contacted a major solar panel maker and asked for an estimate. They got one: ¥30 million. Nine million more than they had. What to do? Take out a loan? A bare majority voted in favor of doing so, but opposition was stiff. It was too risky, they were too old. Maybe they could try another manufacturer, get another quote? They did. The second estimate was significantly lower: ¥17 million. Work began Jan. 31, and the 216 panels began generating electricity on March 31.

They are expected to generate 40,000 kwh annually. Given that the average household consumes 3,400 kwh in a year, that's enough for 12 households. Sanno has 11. The power produced doesn't go directly to the households; the arrangement is that Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco) purchases it for ¥1.8 million a year and redistributes it. But in effect, Sanno has made itself energy self-sufficient. And all this was accomplished, from first inspiration to final fulfillment, in a year.

The Neighborhood Association's immediate objective — alleviating the financial drain on its members — is on the way to being met. This year, reports Josei Seven, the annual levy will be halved to ¥30,000. Next year it will be zero.

The intention was not to protest the government's dull unresponsiveness in the wake of one of the world's worst peacetime catastrophes of modern times, but, intentional or not, the protest sounds loud and clear. On July 5 an independent Diet commission declared Fukushima No. 1 a "man-made" disaster, not a natural one. The only surprise there was the boldness of the commission's language. It excoriated the "collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco (plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co.)" and said, "(The disaster's) fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism and our insularity."

The report appeared within days of Kepco's dubious reactivation of Reactor No. 3 at Oi.

"The ingrained conventions of Japanese culture." In one stroke the jijibaba of Sanno sent them flying and showed us a new road. More solar power to them.



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