Earlier this year the small village of Sanno, in the city of Tamba, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan became Japan’s first municipality to generate all of its electricity from renewable resources. As described in a July 15, 2012 Japan Times article, this hamlet of 42 people whose average age is over 60 installed a system of 216 solar panels that is eventually expected to generate 40,000 kWh of electricity per year—enough to make Sanno self-sufficient in meeting its energy needs.
When this story gained international attention, much of the commentary focused on the statement made by Sanno’s achievement at a time of rising public opposition in Japan to nuclear energy in the aftermath of the meltdown of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese government had just authorized the reactivation of the Oi nuclear reactor, the first to go back online following the complete shutdown of Japan’s nuclear energy facilities earlier in the year—galvanizing the anti-nuclear movement and generating Japan’s largest protests in decades. At the same time, Japan had just implemented a new feed-in tariff (FIT) anticipated to spur the deployment and use of renewable energy resources, including solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower.
Of greater significance, arguably, is the model Sanno’s example presents for other villages and municipalities in Japan struggling with similar financial challenges and exploring opportunities for economic development. As noted in the Japan Times article, the impetus for installing solar power capabilities resulted primarily from fiscal constraints. How could the neighborhood association responsible for maintaining municipal facilities reduce the cost burden of doing this on its members? Identifying the installation of solar panels as an investment to generate revenue and solve this challenge was the first step in making this project happen. As a result of the cost savings generated, the neighborhood association plans to halve its annual levy on members this year, and completely eliminate the levy next year—a savings of ¥60,000 (approximately $765) per household annually.
Hundreds of other small municipalities in Japan like Sanno could, similarly, find that it pays to go green. Not every community or organization may have access to the same kinds of funding that Sanno’s neighborhood association had on hand, which enabled it to avoid having to take out a loan. However, as the price of solar panels continues to fall, and as other renewable energy resources become more cost-competitive through the FIT and enhanced technologies, small local projects like that in Sanno could offer practical solutions that enable these communities to meet their energy needs, sell surplus electricity, and reduce cost burdens. While the results anticipated in Sanno are modest, a critical mass of similar communities across Japan able to meet their electricity needs using locally generated renewable energy resources could have significant implications—particularly at a time of serious ongoing debate in Japan about the future of its energy policy.