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Thinking outside the box

April 19, 2015

Determined sake brewer seeks to revive Fukushima with renewable energy


By TOSHIHIDE UEDA/ Senior Staff Writer

KITAKATA, Fukushima Prefecture--Yauemon Sato’s determination to forge ahead with his ideas, no matter how unorthodox, has led fellow workers to describe him as “a dump truck with broken brakes.”

This way of thinking has apparently helped to keep his family’s sake brewery in business since 1790. It could also be the reason why local governments are investing in the 64-year-old’s plan to revitalize Fukushima Prefecture.

After the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011, Sato decided that the only way the prefecture could be revived was through renewable energy sources.

In August 2013, he established Aizu Denryoku, an electric power company, and brought together individuals with diverse backgrounds to serve as executives and advisers. One was a special adviser of the Japanese subsidiary of a major U.S. semiconductor manufacturer, while another once headed the Fukushima prefectural board of education.

Another member of the group was an ethnologist who promoted Tohoku area studies.

They were all impressed by Sato’s fortitude.

Sato is the ninth-generation chief of the Yamatogawa Shuzoten sake brewery in Kitakata of the Aizu region in western Fukushima Prefecture. When explosions rocked the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., Sato thought the 200-year old family business was done for.

However, radiation levels in the Aizu region never reached alarming levels.

Sato felt somewhat guilty because he continued with his life and business while compatriots in other areas of Fukushima Prefecture were evacuating by the thousands.

“All I thought about was what the Aizu region could do,” Sato said. “Nothing will begin as long as all we say is, ‘The central government is to blame and TEPCO is to blame.’”

Sato took note of the many power plants already established in the Aizu region, which boasts a bountiful water supply that has helped foster a vast expanse of forest.

Construction of hydraulic power plants in the area started in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and those plants today have a total generation capacity of about 4 gigawatts.

Much like the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, most of the power generated at those hydraulic plants has gone to the greater Tokyo metropolitan area.

“The water used in hydraulic power plants originally was the rain and snow that fell in the great outdoors of Fukushima,” Sato said.

He felt that bringing back such resources would allow Fukushima to generate all the electricity it needed without relying on outside sources.

He also believed that such a move would be important to allow Fukushima to move away from being “a colony” of sorts to the Tokyo area.

Sato started with solar power because installation was much easier than constructing hydraulic power plants.

As a first step, Aizu Denryoku built the Oguni solar power plant in Kitakata with an output capacity of 1 megawatt. Smaller facilities were then set up in 23 locations.

By fiscal 2014, Aizu Denryoku and its subsidiaries were operating plants with a combined capacity of 2.54 megawatts and selling the electricity to Tohoku Electric Power Co., which is in charge of supplying all of Fukushima Prefecture.

Aizu Denryoku plans to increase its generating capacity to 5 megawatts by the end of fiscal 2015.

But even at that level, the capacity would only be 0.1 percent of the capacity of the existing hydraulic power plants in the Aizu region.

Moreover, Tohoku Electric in late 2014 introduced a maximum limit on the volume of electricity it would purchase from renewable energy sources.

Such moves are not enough to stop the “dump truck with broken brakes.”

“We will move to our next stage,” Sato said.

By focusing on the initial target of the bountiful water and forests of the Aizu region, Sato plans to start micro-hydro power generation and the use of woody biomass.

Thinking outside the box is in Sato’s genes.

In the late 1970s, his father opposed the redevelopment plan put together by the Kitakata municipal government. Instead, he wanted to promote Kitakata as a “town of warehouses” by capitalizing on the heritage of numerous old warehouses remaining in the city.

On one occasion, he spent 70 million yen to move and restore old warehouses. That led some to speculate that the older Sato had lost his mind.

However, there was huge untapped interest in viewing those old warehouses, and the tourism business took off in Kitakata.

The popularity of Kitakata ramen shops also helped to increase the number of tourists from about 50,000 in 1975 to about 1.2 million today.

The younger Sato says his battle with major utilities will require his own financial resources combined with the power of local communities.

To bring about that goal, Sato contacted all 17 municipalities in the Aizu region about investing in Aizu Denryoku. In March 2015, four towns and villages decided to inject capital.

“Things are looking more interesting now,” Sato said.

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