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Friday Focus: Solar hope for Japan’s tsunami communities

  •   kizuna.
    The Japanese symbol 'kizuna', with calligraphy carved into a stone at Kizuna Solar Park. The plant was built by Mitsui & Co, along with a 270kW carport installation nearby, in response to a request by the local government.


Andy Colthorpe

The bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, the region of Japan where Mitsui & Co. has built the 3.5MW Kizuna Solar Park, stops once at Omiya en route and once more at Fukushima before carrying on to its final stop less than 100km north.

Fukushima, as it is today, needs little introduction. It has sadly become well known outside Japan for the after-effects and bungled response to the worst global nuclear disaster since Chernobyl at Fukushima Daichi reactor. Radioactive water still leaks into the sea in gallons and, according to recent reports, the morale of the several thousand workers involved in the containment and clean up operation has sunk dangerously low. While the wider issue of the nuclear problem continues to cast its shadow, the utter ferocity of the March 2011 tsunami itself and the destruction it wrought has been less widely covered as the glare of the watching media circus inevitably left town in the months following the disaster.

Miyagi prefecture, along with Fukushima, has suffered horribly in the past two and a half years. Nearly two thirds of Higashi-Matsushima City, the site of Kizuna Solar Park, was destroyed by the great wave that followed the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the eastern coast of Japan. According to a source with links to the area of Matsushima, many of the local people had little choice but to assist in burying the dead, their friends and neighbours. With typically stoic and reserved Japanese attitudes, they no doubt did so with barely a word of complaint. Yet it is hard to imagine the kind of trauma that may visit them later and what effects there may still be to come.

Once off the train in Sendai, a short local train was required to Matsushima, from where a taxi was needed for the short journey to Higashi-Matsushima (‘East-Matsushima’) because the trains have not run since the lines and stations were wrecked by the tsunami. Not only that, but as the taxi pulled toward Higashi-Matsushima, the driver, local resident Koji Koyama, told me in Japanese that there really wasn’t much of the town left to see. Without his guidance it would have been difficult to realise the scale of the damage, because the destruction of the town was so complete that what looked like fields had apparently been the site of hundreds of houses before 2011.

“Here stood about a hundred houses, here were another hundred. Three were left standing here and one was left there,” he said.

Matsushima and the smaller town of Higashi-Matsushima overlook an archipelago, a bay of islands, mountains and green tree-covered hills. The area is undoubtedly beautiful and had for centuries been famous in Japan for its scenery and for outdoor pursuits. However, it is obvious just from looking at it how vulnerable it must have been to the tsunami, lying at or just below sea level. Many of the local residents still live in cramped temporary accommodation, while efforts are underway to reinforce and build up the sea wall to a height of 7.2 metres.

Into this area Mitsui has introduced Kizuna Solar Park, which was constructed with panels by Japanese maker Kyocera. Negotiations regarding the construction of a PV plant in the area had already begun in earnest and in fact several of Mitsui’s senior employees were visiting Miyagi prefecture on the day the tsunami struck.

Following the disaster, efforts to construct the park gained momentum quickly and the result is the 3.5MW power plant, along with a 270KWp carport installation added across three municipal buildings and designed to shore up electricity use in the event of further power supply problems. The park was officially opened in July 2013, going online in August.

According to Masaaki ‘Mac’ Ueno, at the Renewable Energy and Environments Projects Division of Mitsui & Co, as well as generating electricity, the park has had more subtle psychological benefits for the area.

“The prefectural government of the area said that while aid had come to the region, for which they were truly grateful, the thing they wanted most was for something to be done to restore and lift the spirits of the people,” he says. “They said charity would not last for long, but bringing companies back to do business in the area would make a difference. Although a solar park does not provide large numbers of jobs directly, building one in the area was recognised as an encouraging step towards signs of recovery.”

Kizuna Solar Park site visit

Miyagi prefecture was affected severely by the tsunami that followed the March 2011 earthquake. Regeneration efforts continue in earnest, although many areas were simply too badly hit to cope and the landscape of the once-popular tourist location has undoubtedly changed forever. Kizuna Solar Park stands as a symbol for hope amongst ruined buildings and fields that were once residential areas and not far from the temporary accommodation in which many local residents still live. Photographs were taken over several hours visiting Higashi-Matsushima in the company of taxi driver Koji Koyama, who describes himself as “taxi driver and travelling poet”.


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