In Japan, Solar Panels Aid in Tsunami Rebuilding

Kenichi Hazawa, a resident of Ofunato in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, moved into his new home this summer—a milestone in and of itself. The rebuilding job has been monumental in this coastal city, where almost one-quarter of the 15,000 homes were destroyed by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, and nearly 8,000 people were forced into temporary housing. (See related, “Rare Video: Japan Tsunami.”) But there’s an important crowning touch on Hazawa’s home: rooftop solar panels.

It was the first solar power generation system installed by Habitat for Humanity Japan under its “Solar Home Recovery Project,” offering photovoltaic (PV) systems to victims of the tsunami, particularly those with disabilities.

The project takes advantage of Japan’s new feed-in tariff (FIT) incentive scheme, which requires utilities to buy electricity from renewable energy sources at above-market rates for a specified number of years. (See related: “Japan Solar Energy Soars, But Grid Needs to Catch Up.”) The solar panels have a capacity of 2.8 kilowatts, helping Hazawa save on utility bills as well as generating income, because excess electricity can be sold to the grid.

“It’s a new form of humanitarian aid,” said Shintaro Yamamoto, Habitat for Humanity Japan’s programs department manager. Habitat Japan organized the program, while global construction equipment manufacturer Hilti and Aktion Deutschland Hilft (ADH), a coalition of German relief organizations, provided financial support.

Yamamoto said Habitat for Humanity has been providing housing aid in Asia with a mind for the environment, and found the idea to install solar systems for households in need to be a difficult, but interesting challenge. The system and installation fee worth some 1.2 million yen (US$12,070) is provided by Habitat, and each household in turn needs to contribute about 200,000 yen (US$2,011.67), an amount that later can be reimbursed through government subsidies. The group helps the households make all the necessary applications and walks them through the complex paperwork.

The biggest challenge was in selecting the recipient of the expensive system. For the first phase of the project, Habitat for Humanity Japan members, already having helped rebuild houses in disaster-ravaged Ofunato, reviewed the households

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Habitat for Humanity targeted its solar home program in Japan to disabled residents like Kenichi Hazawa, of Ofunato, who has mobility issues.

they had worked with and tried to select the people in need who had been left out of various existing reconstruction aid programs. After discussions with local social workers and welfare facilities, the group decided to focus on handicapped people and selected 13 households, including Hazawa’s. Because of his disability, Hazawa has mobility issues. He lives with his brother, who is suffering from the aftereffects of a stroke. “A household with handicapped people needs as much financial support as possible, and we were hoping that the extra income from the sales of excess electricity would provide some added help,” Yamamoto said. The solar installations for the remaining 12 households has been completed this summer, and the annual savings is estimated to be about 60,000 to 100,000 yen (US$603 to $1,005) for each household. “It may not be much, but the income provides a kind of protection to these households,” said Yamamoto.

For the next phase of the project, the group plans to set up solar panels to four locally operated community centers that can generate an average of 7.5 kilowatts each, allowing the facilities to save about 80,000 to 150,000 yen (US$804 to $1,508) each year. This phase will be operated in collaboration with Hilti and the local nongovernmental organization, Sanriku Kizuna Project, as part of community revitalization efforts. “In the end, it’s the local community that has to think about the reconstruction of their hometown. We think it’s appropriate to have the local NGO be involved in the project and give them ownership of the project, as we at Habitat can’t guarantee to be able to help out forever,” said Yamamoto.

The group also plans to call upon student volunteers to help out with the project and interact with the people in the  region, and make sure that the support is not just about donating an expensive system and leaving it at that. “The students’ experience in the disaster-hit areas will eventually help raise awareness about the importance of international aid,” he said.

Yamamoto would like to see the project continue into next year with a focus on facilities like community centers. The selection of individual households proved to be a very arduous process and it would be easier to select communal facilities that would contribute to rebuilding. “I know people may question whether providing solar generation is indeed humanitarian aid or not, and none of the major NGO groups in Japan has shown signs of following suit yet, but it would be very interesting to see whether this form of aid will take root.”