Quiet energy revolution underway in Japan as dozens of towns go off the grid

TOKYO/HIGASHI MATSUSHIMA, JAPAN (Reuters) – A northern Japanese city’s efforts to rebuild its electric power system after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami mark a quiet shift away from the country’s old utility model toward self-reliant, local generation and transmission.

After losing three-quarters of its homes and 1,100 people in the March 2011 temblor and tsunami, the city of Higashi Matsushima turned to the Japanese government’s “National Resilience Program,” with 3.72 trillion yen ($33.32 billion) in funding for this fiscal year, to rebuild.

The city of 40,000 chose to construct micro-grids and de-centralized renewable power generation to create a self-sustaining system capable of producing an average of 25 percent of its electricity without the need of the region’s local power utility.

The city’s steps illustrate a massive yet little known effort to take dozens of Japan’s towns and communities off the power grid and make them partly self-sufficient in generating electricity.

“At the time of the Great East Japan earthquake, we couldn’t secure power and had to go through incredible hardships,” said Yusuke Atsumi, a manager at HOPE, the utility Higashi Matsushima created to manage the local generation and grid.

Under a large-scale power system a “blackout at one area would lead to wide-scale power outages. But the independent distributed micro-grid can sustain power even if the surrounding area is having a blackout.”

The Resilience Program is mainly for building back-up capabilities for Japan’s cities and towns in the event of another disaster such as the earthquake and tsunami that caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

However, the Program has spurred the creation of micro-grids and distributed power generation across Japan that reduces municipalities dependence on large power plants.

Japan’s government ministries are seeking to raise the budget for the Program by another 24 percent for the fiscal year starting in April 2018, the cabinet office said last month.

The money earmarked for this fiscal year is going in part to the creation of smart energy management systems and distributed generation systems in towns across Japan.

An employee of HOPE, a power utility company, is reflected on a screen showing graphs of power generation volumes of local power supply units in Higashi-Matsushima, northern Japan, February 22, 2017. REUTERS/Osamu Tsukimori

“Since Fukushima, there has been a gradual…

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