Producing your own power in post-Fukushima Japan

atoyotamotorA remote Toyota plant in northeastern Japan bears few scars from the devastating quake-tsunami more than two years ago that completely shut it down. Employees roll out more than 100,000 Corolla and Yaris sedans a year and the factory looks like most operated by the world’s biggest automaker. But the plant is unusual for something that cannot easily be seen: it produces its own power.

A gas-fired power system supplies 7,800 kilowatts of energy—about 70 percent of present needs—to help keep production moving, and virtually nothing is lost.

The factory recycles heat from the burning of gas and uses it to dry the paint on finished vehicles. Hot water from the gas turbine runs through pipes into a nearby greenhouse that grows green peppers, which will later be sold. Solar panels also supply some power to the plant. The factory is tapped into the local energy grid and could supply the nearby village of Ohira in case of another disaster.

“We produce electricity for us, but also emergency power for local businesses and the town,” said Toyota official Makoto Sogo, raising his voice above a deafening turbine.

That is a crucial change for the 5,600 residents of Ohira, in Miyagi prefecture, whose coastline was flattened by the monster waves that crashed ashore after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in March 2011. The twin disasters caused widespread power outages in communities such as Ohira and were quickly followed by the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the worst atomic accident in a generation.

“Life just stopped after 2011,” said Ohira mayor Masahiro Atobe. “So we wanted to avoid a repeat of this situation at all costs and make sure it never happens again.”

1-anengineerofAn engineer of Toyota Motor East Japan, car assembly subsidiary of Toyota Motor, walks past the company’s gas engine cogeneration system at a plant in Ohira village, Miyagi prefecture, on August 23, 2013

The changes at the Toyota plant earlier this year are one part of a post-disaster energy revolution in Japan. With anti-nuclear sentiment running high and safety in question, Tokyo temporarily switched off the nation’s 50 reactors, which had once supplied about one-third of Japan’s power. They remain offline but the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is pushing for restarts as Japan’s energy import bills soar. The shutdown forced a countrywide rethink on energy use—and supply. Via Producing your own power in post-Fukushima Japan.

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