January 24, 2012

Empty farms eyed for power generation

Tadashi Isozumi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer, The Daily Yomiuri, www.yomiuri.co.jp 24 January 2012

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has decided to take advantage of abandoned or dormant farmland to encourage power generation using renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind power.

The ministry plans to submit bills to the Diet in February revising the Agricultural Land Law, the Forest Law and other related laws to relax regulations on the use of farmland and forests.

Furthermore, it also plans to offer financial assistance to agricultural production companies that also engage in the power generation business.

Following the outbreak of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the ministry decided to strengthen measures to utilize renewable energy resources in an effort to diversify electricity supply sources.

The plan aims to make Japan’s primary industry more disaster-resistant by ensuring farming and fishing communities are more self-sufficient in regards to power generation.

The ministry also expects local economies to be revitalized should power generation businesses create new jobs and income sources.

According to the ministry, the nationwide total acreage of abandoned farmland is estimated at about 400,000 hectares, larger than the whole of Saitama Prefecture.

Of that number, about 85,000 hectares will be difficult to use as farmland. An additional estimated 82,000 hectares, which were not included as abandoned farmland in the ministry’s statistics, are also considered unsuitable for farming.

The ministry predicts a total of about 170,000 hectares can be used for solar or wind power generation.

With the new measures, the ministry aims to increase the percentage of renewable energy resources in Japan’s total electricity output from slightly more than 1 percent to about 3 percent in three years.

However, to utilize the land plots as power generation sites, pieces of dormant land, which are scattered across the nation, need to be consolidated through land swaps and other means.

A bill to create a new law encouraging electricity supplies using renewable resources in farming, forestry and fishing communities will simplify procedures to consolidate pieces of dormant land.

The new law will likely include a special measure that will stipulate that if municipal governments draw up and announce plans for power generation projects, ownership of abandoned farmland can be transferred without exchanging contracts between the owners.

The ministry is also eyeing using a fund to transform agriculture, forestry and fisheries into growth industries, which will be set up in October.

The fund will be established by both the public and private sectors in fiscal 2012 to encourage the agricultural and fisheries industries to enter processing and distribution businesses.

The fund will be financed by the government’s fiscal investment and loan fund, trading companies, food makers, financial institutions and other private companies.

The fund will supplement smaller local funds set up by local governments, agricultural cooperatives and other local entities. The profits will be paid to fund contributors.

If agricultural production companies start renewable energy power generation businesses, the fund will offer capital or loans.

As for renewable energy resources, the ministry is focusing on solar, wind, biomass for power generation made from livestock excreta and small-scale hydropower generation using irrigation channels.

The ministry has requested about 1.6 billion yen in the fourth extra budget for fiscal 2011 and the initial budget for fiscal 2012.

The budgets will be used to finance research on suitable land plots for power generation projects and to promote implementing model projects.

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