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Japan to Reevaluate Solar Development Regulations After Cause of Landslide in Atami Revealed to be Improper Upstream Construction

published: 2021-08-10 9:30

The heavy rain resulting from the stationary front of the monsoon had led to an extensive landslide at Izuyama District, Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture on the 3rd of July, where 7 were found dead and 27 were missing, and 560 individuals were forced to leave their homes. While accelerating the speed of rescue, the affiliated departments of the area are also gathering additional information to investigate the primary factor behind the landslide.

The severe landslide accident has prompted the government to look back on past regulations pertaining to solar installations, and to reevaluate the site of selection for solar systems and development equipment.

According to the coverage of the Mainichi Shimbun, the source of landslides can be traced to multiple land reformation and development activities, including solar power installations, deforestation, residential housing projects, and industrial waste disposals; the accumulations of soil mounds at reconstructed areas are also a common source of landslides. Shizuoka’s Vice Governor Takashi Namba commented that the mound that had aggravated the incident at Izuyama District had weighed more than 50K tons.

Namba had said that solar energy and residential development are not the cause of the incident, as indicated by the available geological data, though a further investigation is still required. He also pointed out that the mound existed way before 2010, which contains numerous plastic and wastes, denoting that it is merely a landfill that is not used for development. Investigation shows that the particular area is not equipped with an essential drainage facility.

The cause of the incident is currently believed to be the collapsing of the mound, although the solar panels adjacent to the upstream area of the landslide are also believed to be responsible. According to a recent poll of Mainichi Shimbun, 37 out of 47 prefectures are worried about 1-2 solar-system related issues; a further enquiry (multiple selections) indicates that 29 prefectures are concerned over the landslides caused by solar systems, while 28 prefectures are worried about their damages to the landscape; 23 prefectures believe that solar installations would result in environmental destruction.

Numerous operators have been installing solar panels on mountains and hillsides in recent years, which led to concerns of landslides for the residents and the public. Koizumi Shinjiro, the Minister of the Environment, also pointed out that the government has started drafting new regulations surrounding the site of solar power plants by designating areas of higher disaster risks in advance, where solar development would be prohibited.

In fact, Japan is comparatively lenient in terms of extensive solar establishment. The country initiated the FiT system for renewable energy in 2012, followed by an annual ascension of solar deployment at an increase of 28.75 million kW in installed capacity between 2012 and 2016, which equals to 30 nuclear power generators in merely several years. However, the progression has also resulted in significant damages to the landscape and the conservation of soil and water.

Solar plants, among hydropower, thermal power, wind power, geothermal power, and nuclear power plants, were the only ones to not be restricted by the Japanese Environmental Impact Assessment Act in the past. According to the Electricity Business Act, businesses must propose solar plant plans to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry 30 days ahead, and the solar plant will be subject to the Forest Act or the local regulations depending on the location.

Large solar installations were incorporated into the Environmental Protection Act on April 1st 2020, which stipulates that any installed capacity over 40MW must undergo an environmental assessment to investigate whether the solar project would affect the surrounding ecosystems; under the law, the developers of the solar projects would also be required to convene seminars for the local residents. As for 30-40MW projects, an environmental impact assessment will be required upon individual evaluation.

 (Cover photo is a schematic; source: Flickr/Michael Mees CC BY 2.0)

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