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Beyond nuclear power: Japan’s smart energy communities mushroom

Japanese government policy is explicitly committed to restructuring the geography of the energy economy.

February 7, 2017

Recent commentary on Japan’s energy policies seems stuck in an outmoded narrative of government, particularly “pro-nuclear” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, depicted as singularly bent on restarting nuclear plant and building coal-fired power stations.

The discussion suggests Japan’s central government is little changed by the country’s March 11, 2011, natural and nuclear disasters.  However, what’s being missed in this narrative is the hundreds of districts across Japan that are building local distributed energy systems that maximize efficiency and use of local renewable-energy resources.

To be sure, Japan’s energy policy includes nuclear restarts, but in a dramatically downsized fleet compared to what was operating and planned prior to the disaster in what is known as 3/11 in Japan.  And any restarts are likely to come at the expense of coal and other fossil fuels rather than renewables and efficiency.

More importantly, Japanese government policy is explicitly committed to restructuring the geography of the energy economy through a rapidly expanding program of “smart communities.”  Other evidence suggests Japan’s post-3/11 energy and environmental governance is much more engaged with renewable energy than the dominant narrative holds.

Let’s start with the so-called “Higashi-Matsushima City Smart Disaster Prevention Eco Town” and then turn to the institutional context that fostered it and other similar cases.

Overview of Higashi-Matsushima CityOverview of Higashi-Matsushima CitySource: Japan Future City Initiative

Higashi-Matsushima City on the north-east coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu had a population prior to 3/11 of 43,142.  More than 1,130 residents died in the disaster, which saw 65% of the city inundated by the sea.  As described by Nikkei BP Clean Tech Institute’s Kenji Kaneko, the disaster led to the official opening of Japan’s first microgrid-based smart community on June 12, 2016.  The microgrid allows the community’s power network to “island” from the regional power grid in the event of a disaster.

Higashi-Matsushima’s renewable generation assets, complete with battery storage, are linked through the microgrid.  Even in a protracted disaster, this system will provide power to critical-care facilities and others.

Higashi-Matsushima Disaster-Ready Smart Eco-Town
Source: Sekisui House, CSV Strategies, 2016, p 25:

Higashi-Matsushima’s project is not the product of top-down, cookie-cutter policymaking.  The driver of this citizen-centred city management is Mayor Hideo Abe who has led a bottom-up rebuild with the ambition of energy autonomy.

City residents are fully in support, having direct experience of the death and prolonged suffering that results when critical infrastructure fails. The residents, local businesses and other stakeholders are organized in the “Higashi-Matsushima Organization for Progress and Economy, Education and Energy (HOPE),” which was inaugurated as a company on October 1, 2012.

In a January 2017 Japanese book on Community Energy, Yomiuri Newspaper environmental journalist Hiroko Kono investigates both the extensive community engagement and the crucial role of the central government in Higashi-Matsushima and other cases.

Kono’s research reveals that Japan’s Ministry of the Environment recognized Higashi-Matsushima’s local capacity and suggested city officers apply for a distributed energy subsidy. The city got the funds, and was able to use them along with other investment to cover 75% of the 500 billion yen cost of the eco-town’s power system.

Renewable Energy in Higashi-Matsushima City, 2011-2015

Renewable Energy in Higashi-Matsushima City, 2011-2015Source: Japan, Ministry of the Environment, October 6, 2016, p. 11:

The town’s 460 kilowatts of solar is just part of the story. As shown above, the deployment of renewable energy in Higashi-Matsushima as a whole multiplied by nearly 20 times between 2011 and 2015, rising to 35% of the city’s power consumption. The city aims at a lofty 120% target by 2026, and might actually come near it.

Moreover, in April last year the City began operating a local power company, “HOPE Electricity.”  HOPE Electricity’s power sales are expected to reap a 10 million yen profit to be reinvested in the local community.

Japanese Smart Communities and Disaster Resilience

Japanese Smart Communities and Disaster ResilienceSource: Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry, Kanto Economy and Industry Bureau, June 16, 2016.

Higashi-Matsushima’s microgrid is one example of hundreds of smart energy management systems being deployed in Japan’s residential districts, industrial clusters, roadside stations, and other areas designated for disaster-resilience and local revitalization.

The projects stress strong stakeholder engagement and are a focal point for Japan’s robust and integrated policies for disaster-resilience, local revitalization, compact cities, and the deployment of alternative energy.

And the Japanese public is on-board.  The country’s strongest consensus for anything related to energy and the environment is the 77.8% support for use of public funds to build resilience in the face of climate change, the Environmental Consciousness Survey released in September by the National Institute for Environmental Studies shows.

Japan’s diffusion of smart communities is accelerating as green technology and collaborative governance gel in the face of climate change, energy insecurity and the search for local sustainability.

For example, at a January 27 symposium the expansion of fiscal and regulatory support for decarbonizing smart communities was described in detail, along with the strategy to link these discrete smart-community districts into regional smart-city systems.

These energy and related policy developments in Japan have attracted the attention of the OECD.

The OECD’s 2016 Territorial Review of Japan says that Japan’s 2015 strategy on smart communities was developed through an “intensive exercise in inter-ministerial coordination and consultations extending beyond the government itself.”

The lessons of Japan’s smart communities is they are built around central policies that work in concert with local governments, large and small businesses, academe, and civil society.  This point on collaboration is stressed by policymakers in convincing detail.

Budgets and other hard evidence indicate that this year will see Japan ramp up its deployment of advanced and decarbonizing technology through this networked governance. So perhaps it’s time to rethink the stereotype of the Japanese state, and pay closer attention to the mushrooming of its smart communities and renewable energy industrial policy.

Andrew DeWit is a professor at the School of Economic Policy Studies
in Rikkyo University, Tokyo.


February 7, 2017 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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