Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Inventor

On October 23, 2013, I met Akira Nagashima at his Solar Sharing Trial Site (ソーラーシェアリング実証試験場) in Chiba prefecture.


Akira Nagashima, the inventor of solar sharing, is a celebrity in the community of solar sharing enthusiasts.

There are two plants on his trial site, both connected to public grid. Each has an output of about 4.5 kilowatts. There are many solar sharing projects in Japan, but this site is special because it's the first one. All others are imitations of this one.

Plant No. 1 (一号機) is installed above the garden. On the picture you can see peanuts, carrot, leek, taro and a row of unindentified leaves growing under the panels. Nagashima is standing on the side.


Plant No. 2 (2号機) is installed above a parking lot. Nagashima is standing below with a customized module that just arrived from manufacturer.


It still feels strange to call this kind of solar installation a power plant. For too long time we used to think of power plants as big unsightly buildings somewhere faraway.

Definition: Power plant is a complex of structures and equipment for generating electric energy from another source of energy.

Solar panels on the pictures above generate electricity from sun - they are legitimate power plants.

Monstrous appearance we expect from power plants is, luckily, optional. Solar sharing plants so far unticked this option - they're neither big nor ugly nor remote.


Eureka moment

The idea of solar sharing first popped up in Nagashima's mind 10 years ago - in late 2003. Nagashima, now 70, was then studying law at Keio University in Tokyo (yes, at the age of 60). Nagashima got a biology textbook in his law course.

Why would one need a biology book in a law course?

Good question. I forgot to ask.

In that biology book, Nagashima came across the concept of light saturation point.

Light saturation point: Plants need sun to perform photosynthesis. We tend to believe that the more sunshine plants get the better, but this is not true for most plants. The reason is that most plants have a light saturation point - the amount of light intensity beyond which photosynthesis rate doesn't increase. All light beyond this saturation point is not only useless, but can even be stressful to the plant (for example causing overheating and water evaporation)

The concept of light saturation point led to Nagashima's eureka moment: If plants don't need all sunshine they're getting, why don't we use the excessive rays for power generation? Instead of laying solar moduls directly on the ground, we can put them a few meters higher and with spaces in between, so that plants below can still get their share of sun and keep growing.

The idea was out there and the time was ready for the next step: work out details and give it a real, tangible shape.

And a name.

Solar Sharing Trial Site was established in May 2010. Plant No. 1 started operation in August 2010 and plant No. 2 in April 2011. This was the only solar sharing project in Japan at that time.

Fukushima nuclear meltdowns occurred in March 2011. This event was an involuntary turning point in Japan' way of thinking about electricity. Suddenly everyone (okay, many people) were willing to turn off air-conditioning for a while and got interested in renewables. Japan's energy policy changed. The change involved introduction of renewable energy feed-in tariff system, making it mandatory for electric power companies to buy electricity from renewable sources for fixed (and quite high) prices.

Solar sharing, while not yet known among general public, went under the spotlight. Today there are tens of projects all over Japan, and visitors come for study tours to Nagashima's trial site every week.



"You could hardly find anything more low-tech than this," Nagashima says. Except for solar panels, which are admittedly high-tech but available anywhere for increasingly reasonable prices, the supporting frame itself is simple and made of inexpensive materials found in any hardware store. A common assumption is that the metal construction stands on sturdy underground foundations so as to prevent blowing away in a typhoon or a storm. In fact,  foundations are minimal. Metal frame is light and flexible - a design that Nagashima describes as being "like a table - basically just standing on the ground." A strong typhoon can blow a house or a car away. There's no need to invest into expensive robust construction to withstand that kind of pressure. Quite the contrary, with flexible frame and by adjusting panel angle you can minimize the impact of the wind. So far there are no reports of panels being blown away.


Rather than low-tech, I would call it intermediate technology - borrowing a term from Fritz Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. It is "technology which combines sophisticated ideas with cheap and readily available materials." (The Free Dictionary).

Intermediate technology is usually meant to be applied in developing countries, but I think it's just as relevant in "developed" nations like Japan. Reason: By not being too expensive, it's more democratic than the state-of-the-art super-capital-intensive technology that can only be built and operated by big companies. "Democratic" here means participatory. Tens of solar sharing projects now budding in Japan are all small scale projects launched by common people. With proper institutional backup, solar sharing promises participation of and additional income to hundreds of small farmers. (※1)


We talked about many other interesting topics with Akira Nagashima and his colleagues on the trial site - from prices of renewables to necessary legal framework for solar sharing on farms - too much information to cover in a single article. I will save the rest for future articles.



※1 For example offshore wind turbines like these near Fukushima are being build by Japan's top companies including Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (with substantial government support). Local fishermen will not only have no profit from the wind farms, but will be left with disrupted fishing zones.

This approach simply copies the conventional mindset of nuclear and thermal power plants - that power generation should be concentrated in the hands of few companies because it's too complicated or dangerous to let us simple folks participate. But generating electricity is neither complicated nor dangerous, if you choose the right technology.

As Einstein said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction."

Solar power (and biomass and geothermal energy, and even wind power) were created by a touch of genius. God save them from intelligent fools.