Wind and Solar Plants Rise in the Shadow of Fukushima's Nuclear Meltdown in Japan

Cherry trees in bloom can be seen behind the gate of an area evacuated in the town of Tomioka after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. In the spring, the government arranged buses for former residents to visit the zone for the first time in nine years to see the blossoms. It's a good metaphor for the next phase of the site's story, which will see renewable energy options bloom on the site. (Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

In March 2011, a chain of events led to the most complicated nuclear accident that has ever occurred. It began with a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami that caused a meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan. It was an event that experts say is comparable to Chernobyl. People in a 20-mile radius of the plant were eventually evacuated, some of them never to return to their homes.

But now the former nuclear power plant site will have a new life as a hub for renewable energy. The Japanese government along with private investors has put $2.75 billion into developing 11 solar plants and 10 wind-power plants on former farmland that's now unusable. And that work has already begun in earnest: "More than a gigawatt of solar-energy capacity has been added — the equivalent of more than three million solar panels," according to the Wall Street Journal. (WSJ stories are paywalled).

This is all part of the plan for the northeastern Fukushima prefecture to generate 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2040. In addition to the solar and wind power, the plan includes a large hydropower project, geothermal power and a hydrogen fuel plant. (The video below goes into more detail. The most interesting part starts around 18:42. For most users, the video will begin there automatically but it if doesn't for you, scroll to that moment manually.)

In what seems like an unexpected statistic, areas hit by disaster that also receive adequate recovery financing can end up growing faster than unaffected areas. When Kobe, also in Japan, suffered an earthquake and devastating fires in 1995, the city built a now-very-successful biomedical industry. Fukushima, with its host of clean-energy technology, may now have the chance to do something similar and become a leader for the rest of Japan in this area.

"The grass-roots energy movement you see in Fukushima — changing the perspective of how electricity can be generated — that really sets in motion the transition that you have seen in places like Germany," Fitch Solutions analyst David Brendan told the WSJ.

The energy produced at the Fukushima site will be sent to the Tokyo metropolitan area. Additional power will be up and running to power the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

It's not just the Fukushima prefecture that's investing in solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power: Japan as a whole plans to generate a quarter of its power from renewable sources by 2030. (It gets about 17 percent of its energy from renewables currently.) The country has already done some pioneering work in that respect, including large-scale solar arrays on waterways, and serious grassroots energy conservation.

Japan once relied heavily on nuclear power, with 54 reactors providing 30% of the country's power before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Now, after vigorous counterterrorism and earthquake rules for reactors, there are just nine reactors left, and the future for those is uncertain. Meanwhile, solar, wind and other power are getting serious investment for the future.