When the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi melted down in 2011, they set into motion unforeseen events around the world.
Locally, the radiation forced evacuation of some 154,000 residents of the surrounding countryside. Internationally, the disaster became a rallying cry for anti-nuclear advocates, bolstering efforts to decommission reactors from Germany to California.
In the electricity business, this disaster nearly bankrupted the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Fukushima facility. TEPCO serves some 29 million customers in Tokyo and surrounding areas, making it the country's largest utility and one of the largest in the world.
The government stepped in to bail out the utility and prevent the widespread disruption its collapse would cause for customers. Now TEPCO has to find a way to pay off what it owes and earn its way back to financial health -- and the existing utility business model won't suffice.
"We have enjoyed a traditional type of electricity business, which was almost the same as the age of Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla," said Shinichiro Kengaku, managing executive officer and chief of the New Growth Task Force. "In order to recoup the massive amount of compensation for the nuclear damage, we have to find out other sources of revenue to shift from the traditional type of business to new business opportunities."
The shock of the nuclear disaster, then, crashed upon an already precarious business model. The revenue stream from selling electricity had run into a problem.
"Japanese society is an aging society -- the demand for electricity has peaked out, so there is little [room] to grow in the electricity industry itself in Japan, which means that we have to expand our activities overseas," Kengaku said.
The company wants to learn more about "everything related to future electricity markets," including wind, solar, storage, distributed resource management, aggregation across DERs and that trendy blockchain. It has initiated partnerships with European electric companies, which have "more of a sense of crisis toward the future of their business" than American utilities, Kengaku said.
TEPCO has also begun making strategic investments in overseas companies that are grappling with the future of the grid. In April, the company announced a £500,000 equity investment in Moixa Energy, the British residential storage and energy aggregation company. Kengaku said to expect more soon -- he is considering five to 10 potential investments.
The Japanese government is working with the utilities to redesign the market to better enable grid modernization and storage. Currently, Kengaku said, storage is in an experimental phase there. He's got his eye on California and PJM to learn about grid-scale battery economics before the change comes to Japan.
Again, there are really two goals here: to take good ideas from the grid evolution elsewhere back to Japan, and to actually enter those foreign markets and start making money.
"We are an Asian country, so it's very natural for us to expand our business to some countries in Asia. But the U.S. market is also growing, so why not take a chance in your market?" Kengaku said.
That would bring battery development full circle, geographically speaking: Sony first commercialized lithium-ion batteries in Japan in 1991, after which U.S. scientists took the technology and ran with it. Now those advances could soon guide the delivery of electricity back in Japan.(Lead image credit: Richard Schneider)