Is yours a sweet and eco-friendly home?

We can't blame 'them' for everything. By saving energy in our homes, we can make a difference too

by Tomoko Otake

After hearing all the talk about climate change and global warming, many of us are now aware that we need to change our lifestyle in the battle to stop our planet from being a far less agreeable place to live.

We also know that changes start at home. But making your home life environmentally friendly — through saving energy and finding more sustainable ways of powering our domestic lives — remains a daunting challenge.

It’s not that Japan lacks the technologies to build greener homes. In fact, during the G8 Summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, in July, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry showed off a ¥200 million, 200-sq.-meter “Zero Emission House,” the construction of which it had commissioned at a local resort.

The house was equipped with a full range of the latest energy-saving and clean-energy devices, both ones that are already on the market and others still in their experimental stage, including a solar-power-generating roof, fuel-cell batteries and a television set with an energy-saving liquid-crystal display.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda also revealed in June some ambitious targets for a shift into renewable energy, saying he wants to boost the volume of installed solar power by 10 times the current volume by 2020, and 40 times by 2030 — so covering the roofs of 80 percent of newly built homes.

However, this would contribute only marginally to the nation’s total energy use, with Japan projecting to raise its reliance on all renewable energy sources — including solar power, wind power, power derived from waste and biomass fuels — to a paltry 11.1 percent of its entire energy needs by 2030.

So what is happening — or more accurately, why is it not happening — here in the very homeland of the Kyoto Protocol?

A closer look at Japan’s energy policy clearly points to a shortage of strong policy incentives to effect widespread changes throughout the population.

To its credit, Japan’s household energy use is the lowest among major developed countries, said Sachiko Zenyoji, head of the Tokyo-based architectural firm OrganicTable.Company, which specializes in designing “eco-houses.”

“As it is, Japan spends only a half of what the United States spends per household, while Canadian homes spend 150 percent of the U.S. households and Germany 65 to 70 percent,” the architect said, noting that in such places as Canada and northern Europe, the harsh winter weather they experience necessitates higher energy use.

“The biggest problem in Japan, though, is that its carbon dioxide emissions from homes have gone up 30 percent since 1990, while consumption has leveled off in Europe and is declining in the U.S.,” she said.

Zenyoji attributes the trend to modernization of the country; after all, Japan’s standard of living and its people’s living conditions have improved quite markedly in the last few decades.

“During the first rapid economic growth era (from 1955 to 1965), we had plenty of homes built on plots of land smaller than 20 tsubo (around 66 sq. meters),” she said. “Plus, since we are a nation of electronics makers, we have installed air conditioners and other appliances very widely. While these appliances have greatly improved in their energy efficiency, they make up the bulk of people’s bills when all of them are combined.”

In addition, newer homes are often lit excessively by electric lights, while the use of natural sunlight is not explored enough, she said.

Zenyoji’s office-cum-home in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward is an ecological experiment itself. One of many small energy-saving systems she has there are numerous ceiling rails for lights in her office, which allow staff members to move the light source to wherever they are working. As well, the roof of the well-insulated building has a solar-power generator, which drives the motor for recycling water for the toilet and for using rainwater for all other purposes but drinking, such as bathing, laundry and dishwashing. The roof is also fitted with a solar water heater, which heats water for baths and use in the kitchen.

But the ecological features come at a price. Zenyoji has spent ¥12.15 million to make her family’s home eco-friendly, including ¥4.2 million for the solar-power generation system, ¥2.5 million for the systems to recycle water and dispose of kitchen garbage and ¥1.84 million on the rainwater storage and pumping systems. Though such investments are estimated to pay off in 30 years in saved utility costs, Zenyoji said many of her clients are well-to-do types who can afford to make the initial investment required to create such high-quality, eco-friendly homes — noting that the cost of building an eco-house is between 1.5 and twice that for a conventional house.

As for utilizing the sun’s power, which is so bountiful that it could easily fuel 10 times what the entire human race currently consumes, Japan was for years the world’s No. 1 in terms of the cumulative total of solar power installed. In 2005, though, Japan ceded its top spot to Germany, where, thanks to the so-called feed-in tariffs, in which the government guarantees to buy solar-power-generated energy at fixed, above-market rates for 20 years, output has skyrocketed. According to data from the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Program as of the end of last year, Japan ranked second globally in the production capacity of solar power installed, at 1,919 MW, while Germany, now leading the world, had 3,862 MW installed — nearly half of the world’s entire solar-power output, which amounted to 7,841 MW.

Shoji Watanabe, director of the new and renewable energy division at the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, which is part of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, acknowledged that the ending of government subsidies in 2005 dampened demand, noting that his ministry would like to start offering financial incentives again for people buying solar power units from the next fiscal year.

“When we started offering subsidies, a solar-power unit cost about ¥10 million, of which our subsidies covered around ¥2.7 million,” Watanabe said, noting that, by 2005, the subsidies had come down to around ¥60,000 per unit, as the price of the systems had fallen to about ¥2.3 million. “We thought the subsidy program fulfilled its purpose . . . but apparently not,” he said.

Watanabe, however, is negative about copying the German approach to promote solar power in Japan, saying it goes against economic principles.

In addition, in Japan — where nuclear power supplies 31 percent of all electricity needs, more than the 25 percent from natural gas, coal’s 21 percent and renewable energy’s trifling 1 percent — Watanabe indicated that a radical shift in policy is unlikely, despite many observers having pointed out the truly fearful risk of earthquakes affecting many of the nation’s nuclear power plants.

“If you think in terms of costs, nuclear power is much cheaper (than renewable energy), and it is just not realistic to withdraw from nuclear power,” Watanabe said. “But renewable energy has a virtue of its own — that each one of us can contribute to the environment by using it. There is this ‘feel-good’ factor to driving fuel-cell cars or installing solar-power panels. I think that should be the motivation for people to use renewable energy, not to make a profit.”

Zenyoji, though, advocates a more drastic reform in housing policy.

Citing the latest official land-ministry statistics that show only 30 percent of newly built homes in Japan incorporate even basic energy-conserving features such as insulation, she believes the government should financially penalize developers who don’t build energy- efficient homes.

“The simplest solution to increasing the percentage of eco-houses is actually to make it mandatory for developers to build such homes,” she is on record suggesting.

“Of course, eco-houses would be more effective when combined with healthy surroundings. So we should ban development of high-rise buildings in suburban residential areas, designing instead a greener, water-rich landscape, which would create a better energy environment.”