Green phoenix rises from the ashes as Japan shifts its focus

More than two years after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima nuclear facility, renewables are set to take centre stage.

Tokyo Electric Power Co's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture March. Kyodo / Reuters
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The word "Fukushima" may be synonymous with nuclear meltdowns, ghost towns and contaminated rice fields.

The north-east region of Japan, however, once famed for its green mountains and fresh vegetables, is in the midst of the most ambitious of rebranding projects: it is attempting to transform itself into a global green energy hub.

Workers will soon start building the world's biggest offshore wind farm, with 143 turbines 16km off the coast of Fukushima, while the prefecture is also due to become home to Japan's largest solar park.

These are just two of the renewable energy projects currently under way in Fukushima, with the goal of making the still nuclear-tainted region completely self-sufficient by 2040, using renewable energy sources alone.

"The national government is heavily subsidising Fukushima to invest in renewable and alternative energy," says Tomo Honda, a representative at Fukushima General Assembly for Nihonmatsu city.

"Efforts include a biomass energy experiment and solar generation panels in over 4,000 homes and offices. A smart city project is also planned. We are hoping to be able to supply 100 per cent of all electricity needs by 2040."

Such an ambitious goal perfectly captures the mood not only in Fukushima but nationwide, where a green energy revolution is in the making.

More than two years have passed since the nation was thrown into its worst post-Second World War crisis after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster claimed nearly 20,000 lives - and triggered a major nuclear disaster.

Before the first tremors struck, Japan was heavily dependent on nuclear energy: 54 reactors across the country provided about 30 per cent of the nation's energy use, with a 50 per cent target in sight.

Since then, however, the nation has been forced into a nuclear U-turn. The anti-nuclear backlash among the public has been well documented, with 70 per cent of the nation reportedly against nuclear energy and weekend protests snaking regularly through Japanese cities.

Politically too, the landscape shifted - at least initially. Naoto Kan, the previous prime minister, adopted an increasingly anti-nuclear agenda, with a freeze imposed on plans to build future reactors.

But perhaps most significantly, with the reactors turned off one by one for safety checks in the months following the disaster - and currently only two reactors are back online - the disaster opened the floodgates to a boom in green energy projects.

Solar, wind, tidal, geothermal - a flurry of green energy plans, both private and public, are hitting headlines on a regular basis as they launch across the archipelago.

Luckily for Japan, a nation with an impressive track record of disaster recovery as testified by its post-war boom, it is home to some of the world's most sophisticated and pioneering energy technology.

Before 2011, many companies were tapping into this by exporting overseas - as reflected in Fuji Electric's provision of all the equipment used in the world's largest single unit geothermal power station in New Zealand in 2010.

Since the disaster, however, the focus for many Japanese companies has shifted towards the domestic landscape, with a growing number of overseas companies also attracted to Japan.

New feed-in tariff laws to encourage renewable energy investment, as passed in 2011 and implemented last summer, have further fuelled the appearance of a number of high profile projects.

As a result, Japan is en route to becoming the world's largest solar market after China this year, according to Bloomberg, with solar installation projects exceeding forecasts to produce between 6.1 gigawatts and 9.4GW this year.

Current projects include the world's first hybrid wind-current generation power generation system which will be installed off Japan later this year by Mitsui Ocean Development & Engineering Company.

A string of smart-city communities is also in the pipeline, including the rebuilding of Urayasu in Chiba, which was badly damaged in the earthquake and tsunami.

A team of nine major companies, including Fujitsu, PanaHome Corp and Daiwa House, have joined forces to start creating a ¥50 billion (Dh1.81bn) high-tech urban community of the future, with about 1,000 new earthquake-proof homes, electric buses and solar power management systems.

Goldman Sachs announced this month plans to invest ¥50 million into renewable energy projects over the coming five years. The Wall Street firm also formed the Japan Renewable Energy Company unit last summer to design, plan and operate power plants using sun, wind, fuel cells and biomass fuels.

Politically, however, the nuclear agenda is not so clear-cut. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister since December, has made no secret of his pro-nuclear agenda, with experts predicting it is only a matter of time before nuclear reactors are put back on-line.

"Many private companies and NPO have tried to start renewable projects since the March 11 disaster and the passing of the Feed-in Tariffs law," says Noriaki Yamashita, a senior researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies.

"But the new Liberal Democratic Party government has disposed of the new energy strategy made by the former government … and is trying to promote the nuclear industry again."

Such potential obstacles, however, are apparently not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the projects currently under way - particularly those in Fukushima.

"I would like to see Fukushima as an international research and development centre for all renewable and alternative energy technology," says Mr Honda.