Thursday, April 05, 2007

Japan's sustainable community

Land of possibility

By Renee Loth
Boston Globe Editorial
March 28, 2007


THIS RURAL farming community in Iwate prefecture, several hours north of Tokyo, is "Aiming to be Number One" in renewable energy in an already fairly eco-conscious country. Reminiscent of Vermont, but with more dramatic mountains, more slogans promoting civic pride, and more cows than people, the "Land of Milk and Wine" wants to add "Clean Energy" to its portfolio. It's a redevelopment strategy cooked up by Kuzumaki's dynamic mayor, Tetsuo Nakamura, a former veterinarian and rancher who is alarmed at the town's declining population and the dairy industry's precarious health.

"At the time of the election I told people that I wanted to create employment and revitalize the town," he said through an interpreter. "Even though we are in a small town like Kuzumaki I thought we could contribute to Japanese society, at the same time our town can be redeveloped."

Still, Nakamura's interest in the environment is sincere. Somewhere between livestock management and politics, he read the works of ecologist Lester Brown (who also started as a farmer), which ignited his concern. "I had an awareness that mother earth is in a critical situation," he said. He decided to make Kuzumaki a national showpiece for energy independence, and the 8,000 residents of the town have eagerly gone along.

This is a place where solar panels provide 25 percent of the power to the junior high school, where 15 wind turbines take advantage of the resource along the Kitakami Highlands, where experiments are ongoing -- in collaboration with government and private industry -- in the creation of hydrogen fuel cells from methane.

A carpenter's wife proudly shows off her "energy navigator," a measuring device that reads out how much carbon emission she is forgoing by installing a photovoltaic power system (manufactured by Mitsubishi) in her home -- enough on one day to represent several acres of forest.

It's an education for everyone. "The consciousness of people was not high, so I am encouraging students to understand that their school is enhancing an eco-friendly environment," said the junior high's vice principal, Shinichi Obara. High consciousness or not, the baseball team practicing sprints mostly wanted to talk about the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka by the Red Sox.

Everything in town is part of a corny-earnest effort at branding. The local hotel is called "Green Stage." Its coffee shop/restaurant is called "The Cowbell" (excellent yogurt). Signs along the road show the town logo, Miruk-chan, a dairy cow quaffing a glass of the local red wine. In a play on the colors in Japan's flag, Kuzumaki proclaims itself "White and Red and Green."

There are plenty of cows in the land of milk and wine, and their waste posed both an environmental hazard and an opportunity. So the town started a small biomass power project that converts farm waste into energy. Several households are also equipped with pellet stoves that burn waste wood from the nearby forest. The pelletizing process removes water from the wood so there is no soot. The ash is spread on the land as fertilizer. There's even a water wheel that powers a grinder and thresher to make buckwheat flour for soba noodles.

All told, the town generates 22,407 kilowatts, enough to power 85 percent of its own electricity needs -- plus, when the winds are favorable, excess to sell to Tokyo utilities.

Katsuyoshi Kondo, assistant manager in charge of sustainable energy for the town, admits that not all the projects are cost-effective on this small scale, but he says "the most important thing is to raise awareness among the Japanese people." And he is proud to note that the enterprises employ 160 people, including 70 locals who returned to Kuzumaki from the big cities.

All of this activity can't be accomplished without a hefty government subsidy. Kuzumaki's revitalization projects have cost 5.7 billion yen (about $48 million), mostly in grants and loans. Nakamura is frustrated that the government won't require private utilities to increase the amount of renewables in their fuel mix from the current 1.35 percent. "Of course I am not satisfied," he says.

For all its charm and enthusiasm, Kuzumaki is still a boutique demonstration of how renewables can substitute for fossil fuels. One small Japanese town is on its way to energy independence. But it's a big, hungry world.


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