Stanford experts say Silicon Valley is poised to play a key role as Japan restructures its power industry

Mar 08, 2012 By Brooke Donald
Satellite image of damage at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Credit: DigitalGlobe

As cities and towns rebuild after last year's devastating tsunami and earthquake in northeastern Japan, there is a potentially huge demand for the green technology and new information technology now being created in labs at Stanford and start-ups across Silicon Valley.

" is starting to take precedence when people talk about rebuilding," said Masahiko Aoki, a senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. "And Japan will look, and is already looking, to for solutions."

Aoki, an emeritus professor of economics and Japanese studies, said the demand for alternative energy solutions is high after last year's disaster triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima and rocked the public's confidence in .

He said when he flew into Japan several months after the disaster, the lights of Tokyo left a bluish hue in the – a sign that energy-efficient LED lights had been adopted by many businesses and residents.

Aoki compared the new motivation for alternative power to what happened with the Japanese auto industry after the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Disaster triggers opportunity

"Japanese cars took off because Japanese automakers came up with more fuel-efficient vehicles in response to the oil shortage," he said. "Disaster can sometimes trigger opportunity."

Aoki and Kenji Kushida, a Stanford alum and researcher at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, spoke to the Stanford News Service ahead of the anniversary of the March 11 disaster.

"In the short-run there will be quite a bit of investment in infrastructure, housing," Aoki said. "But long-term innovation will center on restructuring the power industry."

Kushida said there is a natural linkage between Japan and the technological innovations of Silicon Valley and Stanford.

"In the devastated areas there will be massive budgets to rebuild cities and to reinvest in local industries, and some of those delegations are looking into what technologies from Silicon Valley they can use to be more efficient and less dependent on nuclear power," Kushida said.

As information technology becomes a major part of smart power grids, consumer applications, electric cars and plug-in hybrids, Silicon Valley firms can potentially play a major role.

"It's very early in the commercial battles for who exactly is going to build or provide what, but Silicon Valley can see opportunity in Japan and vice versa," he said.

Aoki mentioned research in quantum physics at Stanford aimed at making computers more energy-efficient, as well as efforts to innovate in battery technology, which would be essential for revolutionizing the automobile. Kushida noted that there is even a Silicon Valley startup developing renewable fuels and chemicals from seaweed.

Even as energy alternatives are considered, the Japanese government has not backed away entirely from its nuclear program. Only two of 54 reactors are currently running, but Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said this week that officials are still considering the "best mix" of power.

Challenges of restructuring

Restructuring the energy industry will be a challenging transformation for Japan, where the power supply for Tokyo and Eastern Japan is monopolized by Tepco, the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

Aoki said he supports proposals to unbundle the vertically integrated monopoly to make the industry more competitive, safer and more innovative.

But even as the details are still being worked out, Japanese people have come up with innovations of their own to deal with the aftermath of last year's natural disaster that killed more than 20,000 people and swept away entire towns.

Aging farmers are joining together to form partnerships to work with young people or corporations. Fishermen have been sharing the remaining boats.

Companies, too, have managed to adapt to a new workforce or fewer resources.

"In the past 15 to 20 years, the Japanese economy has been in a repeated cycle of nascent recovery followed by abrupt shocks, largely from financial or natural disasters," Kushida said. "With each iteration, the companies become leaner, they figure out how to better use their assets, they increase competitiveness. On the one hand there are these shocks. But then they bounce back stronger than before."

Explore further: Low-cost, hydrogen-powered forklifts with rapid refueling, zero emissions coming soon

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Japanese PM pledges 10 mn solar-powered homes

May 25, 2011

Japan will have ten million solar-powered homes, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged Wednesday, as the country makes a major push in coming years towards renewable energy following its nuclear crisis. ...

Japan firms plan wind farm near Fukushima: report

Feb 14, 2012

A group of Japanese firms led by trading house Marubeni Corp. plans to build a large floating experimental wind farm off the coast of Fukushima prefecture, which was hit by a nuclear disaster last year, a ...

Japan vows to continue nuclear plant exports

Aug 05, 2011

Japan said Friday it will continue exporting atomic power plants, despite uncertainty over its own use of them as it continues to grapple with a crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant.

Japan's Mitsui in quake-zone solar plan: report

Jul 06, 2011

Japanese trading house Mitsui plans to build large-scale solar power plants with the capacity to supply 30,000 households in the tsunami-hit northeast, a newspaper reported Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Ikea buys wind farm in Illinois

20 hours ago

These days, Ikea is assembling more than just furniture. About 150 miles south of Chicago in Vermilion County, Ill., the home goods giant is building a wind farm large enough to ensure that its stores will never have to buy ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

Apr 14, 2014

(Phys.org) —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

Power arm band for wearables harvests body heat

Apr 12, 2014

(Phys.org) —A group of Korean researchers have turned their focus on supplying a reliable, efficient power source for wearables. Professor Byung Jin Cho of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rwinners
not rated yet Mar 09, 2012
Japan will be a very interesting energy study over the next 10 years. I understand that all but 2 of it's nuclear reactors have already been shut down. I assume that, after a thorough inspection, they will be brought back online.
The interesting part will be in watching how they go about moving to more advanced energy sources.

More news stories

Intel reports lower 1Q net income, higher revenue

Intel's earnings fell in the first three months of the year amid a continued slump in the worldwide PC market, but revenue grew slightly because of solid demand for tablet processors and its data center services.

Low Vitamin D may not be a culprit in menopause symptoms

A new study from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) shows no significant connection between vitamin D levels and menopause symptoms. The study was published online today in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopa ...

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...