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80% of Japan's 47 prefectures have problems with solar power plants

Solar panels cover an area of 82 hectares in the western Japan city of Akaiwa, Okayama Prefecture, in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on June 1, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

Solar energy, expected to replace nuclear power as a main source of electricity, has turned into a big headache across Japan, as solar power stations have proven to be eyesores and their impact on the environment destructive.

    A Mainichi Shimbun survey found that of all 47 prefectures in Japan, 80% have problems with solar power energy in one way or another.

    Known as the "sunny land" because of its many fair-weather days, the western Japan prefecture of Okayama is highly suited to solar power generation. Upon entering the city of Akaiwa -- renowned for its white peaches -- the profusion of solar panels makes the gentle slopes of the mountains look like they've been coated in black "sumi" ink.

    Wholesale oil distribution giant Idemitsu Kosan Co. began operating a mega solar power plant in Akaiwa in April 2021. A total of 320,000 solar panels cover an area of 82 hectares, and pump out 65 million kilowatt-hours per year.

    According to residents, there were landslides in 2018 and 2020 on the solar panel-covered slopes.

    "My rice paddies were buried in sand and mud," a local 62-year-old farmer told the Mainichi Shimbun. "Things like this didn't used to happen." Another farmer said, "Sand and mud have come flowing down and muddied the waters, and I'm worried about how it'll affect rice cultivation." Boars, possibly having lost their natural habitats, have also come down from the mountains.

    Idemitsu told the Mainichi, "In 2018 (at the time of the landslide), we were still in the midst of building regulating reservoirs and other disaster prevention facilities, but now we have carried out additional construction so that the solar power plant can withstand unexpected heavy downpours, and we also conduct patrols." As for secondary damage done to water quality and crops, Idemitsu said, "A third-party body surveys abnormalities in water quality as needed, but we cannot answer any questions about the causal relationship between the growth of rice and muddy water."

    In a Mainichi poll of all 47 prefectural governments across the country, 37 said they "have problems" with solar power plants. When combined with the two that said they are "worried about future problems," over 80% of prefectures are concerned about problems with solar power. When asked what type of problems the prefectures faced (multiple answers permitted), 29 said mudslides, 28 said damage to landscapes and 23 said environmental destruction.

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    Japan's rush to expand solar power occurred against the backdrop of the collapse of nuclear power's safety myth, caused by the March 11, 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings' Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. But, contrary to its eco-friendly image, solar power has become a hotbed of public hazards that threaten forests near communities and residents' daily lives around the country.

    But pulling back on solar power expansion is unrealistic. Implementing climate change measures is a task of utmost urgency that we all face across the globe. What is being sought is down-to-earth discussions on beefing up supervision of contractors who install solar panels, and regulations to prevent damage on the sites where solar panels are installed.

    Debate on energy raises many points ranging from environmental problems to national security issues. There are vested interests for each source of energy, and the main policy debate players tend to be politicians, bureaucrats, and those in the business world, as well as some researchers. However, the composition of the energy we use directly affects everyone's lives and corporate activities. There is not one person that this debate does not touch.

    Ten years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began. Let us all take a close look at society, economics, and politics, and re-think what forms of energy our country should choose, in the full knowledge that any decisions will impact us as well.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Takahashi, Naoko Furuyashiki and Daisuke Oka, Business News Department)

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