Biomass town shining amid Fukushima taint

Kyodo

While the nation in general frets over power supply shortages this summer, many of the more than 300 “biomass towns” in Japan are offering a glimpse at a range of new energy alternatives.

Among them is the city of Maniwa in Okayama Prefecture. It has been attracting attention for successfully developing comprehensive city planning and industrial tourism based on the promotion of biomass utilization to efficient produce energy.

Like many other municipalities whose economies depend on forestry and lumbering, Maniwa, situated in the center of the Chugoku Mountains, saw its key industries decline amid competition from imported lumber and the emergence of new building materials.

This prompted a group of local entrepreneurs to launch the Maniwa School of the 21st Century in 1993 as a discussion platform aimed at developing an industry that can use the forests, which account for 79 percent of the city’s total land area. The attempt helped jump-start the city’s biomass business.

“Thanks to the private sector’s participation, we have been able to make biomass business the pillar of our city’s policy,” said Mayor Koichiro Ide, 72.

For example, Maniwa City Hall was built with an abundant supply of cypress from local forests and is almost self-sufficient in energy because it uses wood chips and pellets to fuel its air-conditioning system.

Maniwa also successfully developed a tourism industry by organizing guided tours to a range of facilities related to its biomass industry. It also offers accommodations at inns and hotels equipped with wood pellet stoves allowing visitors to get a hands-on experience.

The tours attracted more than 2,000 people after they were launched in fiscal 2007 with an estimated economic impact of ¥580 million over the past six years.

While visitor numbers briefly declined at one point, they recovered after the March 2011 disasters and start of the Fukushima nuclear crisis because biomass gained newfound attention as an alternative energy source as calls mounted for Japan to abandon nuclear power.

Sachiko Mashiba, 34, deputy director of the Maniwa tourist federation secretariat, said the rebound is a sign the public has come to appreciate the merits of locally and independently generated electricity and heat that reduces household reliance on power companies.

Meiken Lamwood Corp., a local sawmill and Japan’s leading manufacturer of laminated lumber, is an outstanding example of a company that has profited from generating power from leftover wood, bark and other forest residues.

“I won’t forget the moment when I wrote the first invoice to Chugoku Electric Power Co.,” Meiken President Koichiro Nakashima, 59, said, recalling the time in May 2003 when the firm actually began billing Chugoku Electric for about ¥1.5 million worth of electricity it sold to the utility the previous month.

At that time, the “renewables portfolio standard” system had just taken effect, obliging power companies to purchase a certain amount of electricity generated from biomass and other new energy.

The company embarked on its biomass business in 1998, when it invested ¥1 billion to install a biomass boiler with a generating capacity of 1,950 kw. The project was aimed at reducing the plant’s electricity bill by ¥30 million per year.

Nowadays, Meiken can produce almost all of the power needed at its plant by itself and sell the surplus electricity at night, reducing its annual costs by ¥150 million.

“Without this, business would have been very difficult,” Nakashima said.

Along the way, Meiken has also diversified its activities to include the production of wood pellets — a type of fuel made from compacted wood residues and with high combustion efficiency — as well as cat litter, as ways to broaden the utilization of wood chips.

In July, the central government is set to launch a new system that obliges utilities to buy electricity made from biomass and other sources at government-set prices. The prices receivable by new facilities will be set higher than those under the renewables portfolio standard, in hopes of boosting the spread of “green energy.”

While Nakashima is considering building a new biomass power plant with a generating capacity of 10,000 kw or more, he said it would be too naive to think one can make a profit by using cedar and other wood from forest-thinning to generate electricity.

To be profitable, Japan must first come up with a way to transport and dry the wood at low cost, and establish a supply chain to provide the necessary quantity, he said.

“Sell the timber that can be used for lumber, and effectively utilize the rest in the form of laminated wood. Then use the by-products created to generate electricity,” Nakashima said. “This process chain is the basic way to go.”