About a year ago, many people in our part of Chiba Prefecture were still struggling with loss of electricity after two typhoons plowed through the peninsula in rapid succession. Our house was lucky and only lost power intermittently for short periods. Not far from where we live, however, there were some households who didn’t have power for more than a month, and the local authorities, not to mention the regional power providers, seemed at a loss as to what to do about it. Moreover, they didn’t seem sure of how to prevent such problems from recurring in the future, seeing how, with climate change and all, it was likely that these kinds of extreme weather events would happen again and perhaps more frequently.
Extended blackouts are, of course, a serious matter. In addition to loss of lighting function, it means your refrigerator won’t work and thus all your food contained inside will spoil; it means no air conditioning, which could be a big problem at the height of summer; it means no television, which provides emergency information in times when disasters like this strike; and it means no cell phones because no recharging capability. These are all problems that can occur to anyone in the path of a typhoon, but in the cases of the people mentioned above it could be even more serious. We live in an area where a lot of infrastructure is not available. Most of us get our water from wells, and so we need pumps that are run by electricity, so that means no water for bathing and toilets. We also aren’t hooked up to natural gas lines, so unless you get propane deliveries, it probably means you run your household on an all-electric system, so that means no cooking or hot baths/showers.
At least one local municipality has taken preliminary action to be more prepared, and in doing so may spark a trend that should be promoted nationwide. In the city of Sosa, on the Pacific coast, a group of environmental activists has set up a “solar sharing” operation that started out with farmers who allowed the group to install solar panels on tall stanchions above their fields. The panels absorb sunlight, but are far enough from the ground to allow peripheral sunlight to reach most of the ground underneath them, so the fields still produce crops. The farmers still sell their wares, and the sharing group sells excess electricity from the solar setup to the local power company and puts the revenue back into the local government, which uses the money to promote solar energy on a household-by-household basis. According to an article in Harbor Business Online, Sosa seems to be the only local government carrying out such a program. What’s particularly interesting is that, besides the money made from selling the electricity, the program has no relationship with any major power companies, which makes sense. Electricity providers are very concerned about people generating their own power for their own use, since it means using less electricity from the grid, which they control. However, after last year’s typhoons, many residents of Chiba have realized they can’t count on the grid and its overlords to guarantee service in the event of an emergency.
For example, 35 families in Sosa recently attended a workshop at which each was given several used solar panels for free and then taught how to hook the panels up to a portable power source (5 kilograms; AC/DC and USM connectivity; between ¥40,000 and ¥50,000 at almost any home electronics retailer) that can be used during blackouts to do things like power TVs, charge cell phones, and even run (relatively small) refrigerators. The power sources have storage capability, so one full day of charging through solar panels can provide enough emergency electricity for several days. For those families with enough money, the workshop recommended buying two power sources, so that while one is being used the other is recharging.
This is obviously a makeshift solution to the blackout problem. A permanent solution would be built-in solar capacity that can not only be used to store energy in case of emergency, but provide electricity on a real-time, ongoing basis; and the fact is, many people already have this capacity because, if they had their homes built or renovated in the past decade, they had the option of integrating solar collection devices into their electrical systems. The problem is that these systems as built were designed with the idea of selling electricity back to the power companies. That, in fact, was their sales point. But the group also insists that the system can be easily switched over to usage mode, which means the house uses all the electricity generated. And many people have responded to this capability by asking how they can tap into it.
The idea of selling solar energy to the power companies was enacted in order to promote solar energy when it was practically non-existent. When we were looking to buy a house in 2013, we visited one small subdivision in Chiba that was being developed by a housing company that specialized in solar capability, but the pitch was that you sold the power to Tepco and used the money to pay off your mortgage. At the time, Tepco was paying way above market rates for solar-produced electricity, so this plan was very attractive. The odd part was that the household itself would not use any of the electricity it produced, and that also made a certain amount of sense since the price of electricity was very cheap in relation to the amount of money being paid for the solar energy. This way, Tepco could have its cake and eat it, too: It could “promote” solar energy in line with government strategies but it also kept homes hooked up to the grid. At the time, the housing company we talked to said that Tepco would pay about ¥42 per kilowatt/hour, but as more people have availed themselves of home solar systems, the power companies have reduced the price they pay for the resulting electricity. Now, Tepco pays ¥21 per kW/hour for solar system sizes of less than 10kW, and only ¥12-¥13 for systems of between 10kW and 50kW. (Anything over 50kW qualifies as a commercial entity, which means Tepco buys the electricity at market rates) At these prices, there isn’t much difference between the money one makes selling electricity and the money one spends buying power from the grid. Tepco’s strategy is obvious: without such an incentive, people will be less likely to install solar systems, and thus their power monopoly will continue to be the only game in town.
But that strategy still sees solar systems as inherently expensive to install and maintain, and that isn’t the case any more. Prices have come way down since we visited that solar subdivision, and according to various technical media, it will come down even farther as worldwide mass production kicks in. In terms of the price of electricity, parity has already been breached. Unbeknownst to most consumers, the price of electricity has increased since the 2011 quake-tsunami by about 30 percent because the nation’s nuclear plants were shut down. The reason people haven’t really noticed that rise is because household devices have become exponentially more energy efficient, and people took the post-quake directives to heart by consciously using less power. This is a very good development, and in the scheme of things more meaningful than switching to renewable energy. As a planet and a species we have to reduce our footprint by consuming less, and that starts with electricity. The next step is full responsibility for our electrical usage, meaning we use only what we make.
Consequently, the price of selling electricity to Tepco by households will drop below the market price and, someday, the buyback system will be terminated altogether, but contrary to Tepco’s belief, it will likely mean that more people will install solar systems for their own use, meaning they will connect their electrical systems straight into their panels, and with the efficiency and capacity of home storage devices increasing as their prices fall, there is no reason to think that homes in the near future can’t become completely self-sufficient off-grid. In such a situation, “emergency power” will come to represent something totally different than what it means today. We will get supplemental and makeshift power from the grid, which could become increasingly smaller and community-based. What’s particularly ironic about these developments is that they are market-based. Yes, the authorities essentially kick-started the greater use of solar systems, but it was people out to make money that found out how to make it pay, much to Tepco’s chagrin.