The moment is described in the Sandai Jitsuroku, a Japanese history book more than a thousand years old.
As the earthquake shook the land, a “luminous phenomenon” filled the night sky and illuminated the coastline. Then the tsunami came. The seawater spread across the Sendai plain, flooding the old castle town and killing about a thousand people. It was named the Jōgan tsunami after the emperor at the time. The year was 869.
In 2001, a team of paleontologists and engineers examined sand locked in the strata below the Sendai plain, stretching more than two miles in from the coast. There are three layers, evenly spaced — a geological clue that a major flooding event takes place here every 800 to 1,000 years.
“More than 1,100 years have passed since the Jōgan tsunami,” wrote the researchers. “Given the reoccurrence interval, the possibility of a large tsunami striking the Sendai plain is high.”
Ten years later, the Tōhoku earthquake hit the northeastern coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that unleashed devastation across the country, killing almost 20,000 people.
If it was the destruction of an old castle town that stood out after the Jōgan tsunami, there’s no doubt what monopolized attention this time: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Seawater inundated the plant, causing the three reactors to overheat. Radiation leaked into the surrounding environment. Eleven of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were shuttered immediately following the meltdown, leading to rolling blackouts and energy rationing across the country.
The fate of the Japanese coast was, in this case, literally written in stone — but the outcome was not. Had the government better prepared for a major flooding event and not relied upon vulnerable, coastal nuclear power plants for almost 30% of its electricity, it may have been able to better withstand these forces of nature.
The lesson was painfully obvious: Energy systems need to be resilient to disaster. And this is not just a lesson for Japan; it’s one the rest of the world is starting to learn as we face cascading, interconnected crises from COVID-19 to climate change.
Where we get our energy will determine whether we can ward off catastrophic climate change and how well we are able to cope with the consequences that are already here.
The Fukushima disaster was a unique situation. Climate change didn’t cause the tsunami; Japan is a seismically dramatic nation. The power plant — poised on the Pacific coast — was not built to withstand a 42-foot wave. And a nuclear meltdown is an especially dangerous event.
But the plant was not unique in its vulnerability to crisis ― and Japan is not unique in ignoring the predictions of future catastrophes.
When it comes to climate change, there is no reason why the world should be similarly caught off-guard. We have known for decades that we need to transition to renewable energy systems — not only to slow the progression of climate destruction driven by fossil fuels, but also because renewable energy has often proven more reliable during disasters than either fossil fuels or nuclear power, and could help make humanity more resilient in the face of the climate catastrophes it’s too late to forestall.
Increasingly ferocious weather disasters around the world threaten energy infrastructure — including fossil fuel plants and pipelines. The majority of the world’s power still comes from fossil fuels. But despite decades of industry messaging pushing the reliability of oil, gas and coal compared to wind and solar, studies show that fossil fuel infrastructure is inherently vulnerable to climate change.
Power plants, particularly in coastal areas, will be affected by hurricanes, storms and rising sea levels; wildfires, like those regularly ripping through the U.S. and Australia, are already causing blackouts that endanger communities. An increasingly arid landscape could lead to temporary shutdowns as the water needed for power plant operations grows scarce; droughts and extreme heat have already affected electricity supplies in countries such as India, Kenya and France.
Those working in open-pit coal mines face floods and landslides caused by rising rainfall. Pipelines and power lines face the whole suite of climate impacts: sea level rise, thawing permafrost, strong winds, wildfires and landslides.
Wind and solar installations, while certainly not invulnerable, are less likely to be completely wiped out by extreme weather and can free people from reliance on a centralized source of power.
Solar panels and wind turbines are effectively mini power plants in themselves, distributed across the landscape and able to be disconnected from the central grid, meaning that they can continue to operate even when the main power supply goes down. With the help of battery storage, this can provide a life-saving source of power during critical outages.
It’s no wonder, then, that as Fukushima residents began to pick up the pieces of their lives in the aftermath of the disaster, many businesses and communities turned to renewables, particularly solar power. Jun Yamada was one such entrepreneur.
Yamada had been working in IT, but after the disaster, he teamed up with Yauemon Sato, another local man whose family had run a sake brewery in Fukushima prefecture for nine generations.
“We explored what we ourselves could do, as a small number of citizens living in the countryside,” said Yamada. “The conclusion was: Why don’t we generate renewable energy ourselves, and send it to the community?”
Together, they formed the Aizu Electric Power Company in 2013. To date, they have installed solar panels at 80 sites around the region.
Stories like this can be found throughout Japan’s disaster-hit areas, where new solar installations surged at rates that often far outstripped the pace of change in the rest of the country. For many, this was partly a psychological response to the disaster — a desire to build something safer and more resilient, over which they had more control.
The process was helped along by government policies — namely, the introduction of a feed-in tariff, which provides a high guaranteed price and grid access for renewable electricity, and easier access to land (acres of land became unusable for farming following the nuclear accident). But communities’ willingness to embrace change played an important role.
“A lot of these communities invested in public solar initiatives because they saw how vital it was to make it through the first 72 hours after a disaster,” said Timothy Fraser, a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston who spent time with Japanese communities in 2016, tracking the transition to renewable energy in the wake of the tsunami.
“If a community can just make it through those three days, having power for vital facilities like hospitals and public shelters, by the end of that period, in most cases, disaster aid NGOs can get there and give support,” Fraser said.
Solar has proven itself critical to recovery from disasters around the world, but ideally, communities would have resilient energy systems in place before disaster hits.
For Blue Lake Rancheria, a small Native American tribal community in California, the value of a resilient, off-grid source of electricity was obvious.
“This area is very rural, and it’s also subject to wildfires, storms and floods. There have been outages in the region that have lasted a week, two weeks, or more,” said Jana Ganion, the tribe’s director of sustainability and government affairs. “The tribe knew that these were going to be amplified by climate change in some way — and of course, that has turned out to be exactly the case.”
In 2015, the tribe set up its own microgrid – including 1,500 solar panels – that can operate independently, effectively turning the reservation into a small energy island.
It turned out to be a lifesaving investment. When wildfires swept through Humboldt County in 2019, causing widespread power outages, the microgrid was able to supply power. Thousands of people from the surrounding area flocked to the reservation’s buildings. Several rooms of the tribally owned hotel were given over to eight critically ill patients who relied on power to supply them with constant oxygen. The county’s Department of Health and Human Services credited the tribe with saving their lives.
Sarita Turner believes that community-led renewables can be much more than a lifeline in a crisis; she sees them as an important tool in the fight against systemic racism and a way of achieving long-term stability for communities through jobs, education and empowerment.
As vice-president for U.S. programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an international nonprofit based in Vermont, she works with community organizations in cities across the U.S. that use energy projects to build local resilience for climate-vulnerable communities of color.
One of these initiatives is Power52 in Baltimore. Founded in 2015, Power52 set out to reinject hope into a community that was hurting after Freddie Gray’s murder by police sparked city-wide protests and civil unrest. The nonprofit, which counts former NFL star Ray Lewis as one of its co-founders, trains people to install and maintain solar panels.
Previously unemployed graduates of Power52’s energy institute ― 65% of whom have spent time in jail ― installed solar panels and battery storage at an East Baltimore community center in 2018, turning it into a “resiliency hub” where people from some of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods can gather during a blackout. The hub, which can provide 72 hours of electricity, is stocked with food and water, charging stations, and other things people need to ride out a crisis, big or small, in safety.
When disasters strike, like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Harvey, communities of color are often hardest-hit, suffering greater property damage, loss of services like electricity and water, and long-term threats to their financial security. Preexisting vulnerabilities, like precarious employment, combined with unevenly distributed disaster relief, make it much harder for these communities to recover from a disaster.
Black residents of New Orleans were over three times more likely than their white counterparts to lose their jobs after Hurricane Katrina, for example. “Our work begins to undo that,” said Turner. “It begins to help people understand these connections and build resilience in their communities.”
The theory is that, by building capacity in Baltimore’s vulnerable communities to install and maintain clean energy systems, not only will they be better equipped to handle the immediate fallout from a climate-related disaster, but the project will build better long-term resilience, too, helping to break the cycles of poverty, unemployment and incarceration.
To date, Power52 has created four resiliency hubs in Baltimore and trained 209 solar engineers, providing job placement assistance for trainees. At a recent graduation, five of the eight trainees showed up with jobs in solar power already secured.
Alongside employment opportunities, “[c]ommunity renewables schemes can deliver a range of social and economic benefits to local communities,” found a report by the National Trust, a U.K. conservation nonprofit, including “increased autonomy, empowerment and resilience, opportunities for education, a strengthened sense of place, and an improved local economy.”
“The evidence is clear, the jury is in, the predicted climate crisis is upon us.”
JANA GANION, BLUE LAKE RANCHERIA
Junko Mochizuki, an expert in risk and resilience at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna who studied solar uptake in post-disaster Japan, observed something similar in Japanese communities where residents had joined together to build local solar projects on land that could no longer be farmed.
Rebuilding in this “more locally-oriented” way, she said, will make these communities “more resilient in the future: They have more community identity and they’re more invested.”
Most community energy projects take place on a small scale — a wind turbine here, a few solar panels there — generating enough power to supply local buildings or perhaps bring in a small stream of revenue.
But the challenge ahead is enormous. As populations rise and people get richer, global energy consumption is predicted to increase by nearly 50% by 2050.
Meeting this demand with fossil fuels would lead to an even greater climate catastrophe and leave communities even more vulnerable to its consequences. If humanity is to avoid that pathway, renewables must be scaled up.
Luckily, some countries have already started. Earlier this year, the World Bank partnered with the Kenyan government to finance off-grid solar projects across the country that will provide energy to 250,000 households and more than 800 public facilities. As well as weaning the country off fossil fuels, the partnership is helping light the homes of some of the 12 million people in the country who had no access to electricity and enabling children to learn remotely during a pandemic.
The conditions to pull off a large-scale solar shift are here: This year, solar power became the cheapest source of electricity in history. The International Energy Agency has dubbed it the “new king” of electricity, and predicts that solar and wind combined could overtake coal as the biggest source of the world’s power by 2025 ― if, and it’s a big “if,” national governments enact all the changes to their energy systems they are currently promising in order to tackle the climate crisis.
The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami revealed the need for resilient energy systems. But in its scramble to power the country after the disaster, Japan demonstrated that a crisis is not a good catalyst for widespread, long-term change. While Fukushima prefecture is aiming to be 100% renewable-powered by 2040, Japan as a whole ― despite a new commitment last month to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050 ― has been moving in the wrong direction, shifting toward coal to make up the shortfall from its shuttered nuclear plants.
As Mochizuki puts it, after a catastrophe is “really not the time” to embark upon an ambitious reimagining of the energy system.
“We have spent more than enough time admiring the climate problem,” said Ganion, of Blue Lake Rancheria. “The evidence is clear, the jury is in, the predicted climate crisis is upon us.”
Her advice: “It’s time to fight.” The solutions are right in front of us and the transition is underway, she said, “but we must accelerate, starting today.”