Efficient ‘smart cities’ gain traction after disasters

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

The power shortages that hit the country following the March 2011 disasters made better energy management an imperative and spawned efforts to create efficient “smart cities.”

Ideas for these environmentally friendly communities that employ cutting-edge technology have been flourishing — especially in the disaster-hit Tohoku region — as the government encourages businesses and municipalities to launch subsidized smart city recovery projects.

In addition to smart city projects nationwide that were under way before the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis, around 50 such initiatives have emerged in Tohoku.

Among them, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in April selected eight pioneer projects in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures as candidates for subsidies METI will provide by March 2016 to promote smart communities.

In a fiscal 2011 extra budget, the government earmarked ¥8.06 billion for such subsidies.

The eight initiatives aim to improve energy usage through clean power sources, including those for Tohoku factories of major manufacturers such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Nippon Steel Corp. as well as a group of local seafood processing firms.

A smart city in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, will serve as a model for Tohoku projects still in the planning stage.

The 273-hectare community being developed alongside a train station in the suburban area is expected to demonstrate various steps that enable its residents to sustain themselves in the event of disaster-induced blackouts and other situations.

The Kashiwa-no-ha campus city project, undertaken by major real estate agency Mitsui Fudosan Co., has introduced solar- and wind-power generators and a 2,000-kw storage battery and secures its water supply by tapping groundwater.

The community, being developed on a former golf course, will be completed in 2014 with high-rise housing complexes, university facilities, parks, a shopping mall and a hospital. Its total population, including commuters, is expected to hit 26,000.

Seiji Nakata, a Mitsui Fudosan project manager of the city’s planning group, said electricity stored at night in the smart city could theoretically power 150 households for a day, or 1,000 for a couple of hours. About 4,000 people in some 1,300 households currently live in the community, which opened in 2007.

“Following the March 2011 disasters, elevators stopped and rolling blackouts were introduced, inconveniencing residents. The Internet connection was also severed,” Nakata said. “We aim to ease the local utility’s exclusive control of the electricity grid and allow power stored in the shopping mall to be diverted to residential zones in the future.”

To better respond to future disasters, Kashiwa-no-ha residents have established groups to aid in wireless communications in emergencies, he said. Last March, they held disaster drills, including cooking meals with stockpiled food and water.

In spring 2014, Mitsui Fudosan plans to comprehensively control energy consumption in the area with smart-grid advanced power delivery systems.

For efficient energy management, the company will install in 2,500 households smart meters that will show electricity, gas and water consumption in each house to encourage energy conservation.

To run the smart community, Mitsui Fudosan has tied up with electronics giants Hitachi Ltd., Sharp Corp., an affiliate of South Korea’s LG Electronics Inc. and U.S. computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co.

“We plan to further boost the community’s power-generation capacity to achieve self-sufficiency in electricity supply,” Nakata said.

The smart city plans to adopt more clean-energy sources in the future, including biogas generated from raw garbage, solar heat and geothermal energy, while promoting energy-saving efforts by installing light-emitting diode bulbs and introducing an electric-vehicle-sharing system.

Nakata noted that while some people showed interest in the smart city’s disaster response measures, sales of housing units have failed to grow sharply amid radiation fears.

Kashiwa is a known hot spot where high radiation readings have been detected from the fallout from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The disposal of large amounts of incinerated ash containing high levels of radioactive substances has also vexed the city and others nearby.

Still, Nakata said the community in Kashiwa is expected to serve as “a lab for smart city experiments” so that companies involved can build similar energy-efficient cities overseas.

“The definition of smart cities is not yet fixed in the world, so we’d like to create a de facto standard,” Nakata said. “The important point is to involve people who actually live in the community, instead of relying too much on the logic of companies.”

Manabu Fukuchi, a senior consultant on infrastructure and energy industries at Nomura Research Institute, said smart cities in Japan are relatively smaller in size than in other countries, especially in fast-rising emerging economies such as China.

“The Japanese smart cities should serve as a showcase for the technologies and expertise of domestic companies,” he said. “As for Tohoku projects, developers must think how they can benefit local residents, including elderly people, and decide who will finance the new initiatives.”