Lessons on green energy in Daiichi's shadow

A former TEPCO executive hopes his renewable energy educational project will inspire Japan's next generation.


    Minamisoma, Japan - In a field roughly 25km away from  the still leaky Daiichi nuclear power plant rests the tiny promise of a future fuelled by green energy in Japan.


    Here lies the Minamisoma Solar Agri Park, a small venture started up by 60-year-old Eiju Hangai. The focus is on educating local students, who, Hangai said, were grateful for all the support they received at the time of the earthquake and tsunami.

    According to the local teachers he had spoken to, the students hope to be able to help others as adults – to pay it forward, if you will.

    Hangai is originally from Minamisoma – the part that is part of the nuclear exclusion zone, just 5km away from his project. His grandfather was the mayor of Odaka (now incorporated into Minamisoma) and his father also served in local politics.

    “Now, it’s my turn,” said Hangai, not specifying a political career but rather, public service, in the form of his current initiative, funded by several foundations and companies.

    On a frigid March day, massive solar panels gather energy from the sun, converting it to electricity that used to hydroponically (sans soil) grow salad greens and white celery in two massive tents. The excess energy is sold off to the local utility company.

    Hangai and a small staff bring in students and teach them how electricity is generated and how it is used – in the year that the park has been operating, nearly 900 of Minamisoma’s 3,300 elementary and junior high school students have attended the “Green Academy.”

    While the park is clearly a green/renewable energy education tool, Hangai told Al Jazeera that he was not promoting any particular form of energy.

    “This is about people, not energy,” said Hangai, who worked for Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO), the operator of the damaged plant and a company many see as the villain behind the mishandling of the nuclear crises.

    The TEPCO question

    He is incredibly measured when asked why a man who spent 30 years of his life (he retired in 2010) selling and promoting electricity produced by the nuclear power plant would focus on teaching the next generation about the benefits of solar energy.

    “I have no comment on nuclear energy,” said Hangai, adding that many of his former colleagues are still working to stabilise the plant.

    In fact, he didn’t even ask his former employer for funds for the park.

    “I feel that if TEPCO has money, they should give it to the people who had to be evacuated (from the nuclear exclusion zone),” he said.

     Still, he does include a telling line on his CV (which is on the promotional material for the park): “Visited Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant while in elementary school.”

    Why include that line?

    “When I was 11 years old, I went to the Daiichi plant, which was still being built,” said Hangai.

    “At that time, I got the impression that that this was going to be a big source of energy for Japan, which is why I entered TEPCO when I graduated from [law] school,” he added.

    He focuses on green energy in the park because he said he knows it’s a concept “widely accepted” by the community - though not widely used. As of 2010, less than 4 percent of Japan's energy came from renewable sources.

    So, is he hoping that showing kids the potential for green resources might make them think that Japan’s future resets in renewable energy?

    “No,” he said,

    “Of course, there will be kids who will think that renewable energy is a good thing,” said Hangai, adding that his Solar Agri Park is intended as an educational tool, a model he hopes will help Japan’s next generation to “achieve a universal value.”

    “I want them to have the ability to put their thoughts into practice…and to train for a career in being a good person who helps others.”

    Maybe he secretly hopes that that future will include green energy…maybe not.

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