‘Solar girl’ sheds reliance on Tepco for spartan life on the edge of the grid

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

It was August 2012 when Chikako Fujii had one of the most memorable conversations of her life. That moment came when a bill collector from Tokyo Electric Power Co. rang her doorbell in the west Tokyo suburb of Kunitachi and told her with finality that she had an important choice to make.

“Your payment is overdue this month. Unless you pay now, we will have no other option but to terminate our contract with you,” the man threatened.

“Sure, go ahead,” Fujii replied nonchalantly, much to his shock. The collector quickly dropped his hostile attitude and tried in vain to get her to reconsider.

Fujii, however, remained adamant. The following month, the 53-year-old housewife terminated her contract with the beleaguered corporate behemoth.

And so began her current life as a “solar joshi” (solar girl), as she is known online. She now spends much of her time passionately campaigning against nuclear energy and spreading her knowledge of power-saving techniques.

Fujii, who makes a living as a textile-dyeing artist, recalled how the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011 made her cringe when she realized how easily life could be disrupted by blackouts. Seeking a lifestyle less dependent on electricity, especially the nuclear-generated kind, she began minimizing her use of air conditioning, converted all of her lights to LED bulbs and even got rid of her TV set and refrigerator.

After more than a year of energy-saving efforts, her electric bill in August 2012 — the month she terminated her contract with Tepco — had dropped to an incredible ¥400.

“I just couldn’t stand the idea that a part of my payment, however meager, was being used by the company to promote nuclear power,” Fujii said.

Prior to parting ways with Tepco, she had experimented with solar panels to gauge their viability. By the time she got rid of Tepco, she was confident the panels alone could sustain her spartan lifestyle.

The solar equipment, including capacitors and inverters, cost her about ¥130,000, but can generate an average of 800 watts a day, depending on the weather. Although unsure of the exact figure, Fujii believes her energy consumption amounts to 15 kWh a month.

Her daily routine includes using a hand-cranked radio to get general information instead of a TV. The scorching summers are weathered by sprinkling water outside. “Trust me, it does make a difference,” she said.

In winter, the gas heater becomes her best friend. Since she discarded her refrigerator as well, Fujii uses a handmade cooler to store what little food she wants to keep in reserve.

Having stopped eating meat and fish as a part of her energy-saving crusade, her vegetarian diet allows her to buy on demand, meaning she can get by without storing food for days. She also heats and cooks the vegetables with a home-made solar cooker that makes direct use of the sun’s rays.

Her laptop and cellphone are two of the few necessities that need recharging. She routinely blogs and tweets about her life, sharing expertise and tips with like-minded nuclear foes and conservation aficionados.

Once darkness falls, she resorts to lamps to keep her room dimly lit.

The hardest part of her life, however, is running the washing machine, which consumes a lot of power.

As an extra source of electricity, Fujii started using a bicycle connected to a motor earlier this year to produce self-generated power. She said the heavy pedaling helps her stay fit.

“Some people have told me incredulously that I made a very bold decision,” Fujii said. “But seriously, I don’t find any of what I’m doing that inconvenient. I’m truly enjoying my life now.”

Despite repeated assurances that she honestly loves her anachronistic lifestyle, Fujii has fallen prey to several unusual “accidents.”

Before installing the bicycle, her washing machine would stop occasionally at night due to lack of power, leaving the clothes to soak all night long. She has also accidentally dropped china and other items at night because her dwelling is so dimly lighted.

But the self-proclaimed natural optimist laughs off all these mishaps.

“This lifestyle is definitely not for the fastidious. You have to be accepting of certain inconveniences,” Fujii said.

Although a vocal crusader for a nearly zero-power society, Fujii said with a tinge of embarrassment that she used to run her TV nonstop and overuse the air conditioner. That is, until she realized the “fragility” of her electricity-dominated life.

Amid the heavy media coverage sparked by the ongoing nuclear crisis in Fukushima, she said that she learned for the first time that there are more than 50 atomic reactors nationwide.

“Given the snowballing population across the globe, I think we have to figure out ways to come up with sustainable energy resources. That’s how the world should be changing,” she said.

  • Michael Marcus

    The article states “Although unsure of the exact figure, Fujii believes she uses an average of 300 to 500 watts a day, or 15 kw a month.”

    Without getting overly technical, the units here, such as “watts/day” make no sense in either English or Japanese. Perhaps she uses 300-500 watt-hours per day. Perhaps she has a peak demand of 500 watts. But the garbled units presented make it impossible to understand what she is doing and reflect poorly on Japan Times.

    I suggest your writers either get their units right on not use specific numbers as here.

  • Michael Radcliffe

    It’s hard to think of a better argument for the widespread use of nuclear technology than the existence of people like Chikako Fujii. Her lifestyle neatly demonstrates the hardship that results from unreliable electricity supply. She has been forced to abandon T.V., air conditioner and refrigerator. She gets her news from a hand-cranked radio and even her diet is restricted to vegetarianism. Her solar cooker won’t work on winter days or any evenings at all – cold dinner for her! Not only that, she relies on a gas heater for warmth – without considering the effect on the global climate of those C02 emissions, a sad irony for somebody who is changing her lifestyle so drastically for the sake of the environment. She even needs to pedal a bike just to wash her clothes. I also note she needs to charge her laptop in order to blog about her ‘anti-nuclear’ life … I’m guessing that in the winter months her blog posts are a little less regular than they could be!
    Energy conservation is not a bad thing; but in the final analysis there can be no doubt that we need more electricity, not less.
    I think that pro-nuclear bloggers and activists would love to hear more about Ms Fujii and other ‘solar joshis’.

  • Joseph Jaworski

    The key factor in this story is that she is choosing this lifestyle voluntarily. She was not “forced” to abandon anything, as Michael Radcliffe stated. Where I part company with her and activists in general is when they try to impose their lifestyle choices on other people. It is no less immoral to force people to pay for nuclear power than it is to prevent people from freely choosing to buy nuclear power.

  • Franz Pichler

    You’re right! All available data and research at the present day agree that the biggest problem of nuclear, namely the disposal of nuclear waste, is not solved yet thus making it the biggest headache of our times. Nuclear itself is a dangerous technology but can be managed, its waste is very dangerous and as of today CANNOT be managed thus making nuclear a very expensive option when factoring in the capital needed to build “an eternal disposal place” like Onkalo in Finland. Only the Finns have “solved” the problem and it is very very expensive – please watch the documentary on Onkalo (google it) – Ms Fuji might be extreme but she is doing the right thing. Japan has a bounty of geothermal energy but the energy lobby is extremely strong and will fight any attempt to stop privatizing their profits and (in the case of Fukushima!!!) nationalize their debts! Of course nuclear is cheap when the biggest tap is picked up by the taxpayer!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/cees.timmerman Cees Timmerman

      True. If not for the rush to produce a bigger bomb, perhaps the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_fuel_cycle would be in use now, leading to vastly more efficient power generation than even current reactors provide, which contain their dangerous waste instead of spreading it about like coal reactors do (Earth’s mantle is filled with nasty chemicals). After 300 years, the radiotoxicity of the thorium fuel cycle waste is 10,000 times less than that of the once-through uranium/plutonium fuel cycle waste.

      Alternatively, high-power factories can move towards locations with lots of renewable power, or have a supergrid connect those to them, as Al Gore proposed: http://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_s_new_thinking_on_the_climate_crisis.html

      For most people, solar should suffice: http://inhabitat.com/sonnenschiff-solar-city-produces-4x-the-energy-it-needs/

    • Sam Gilman

      Do you have any numbers on the potential for geothermal in Japan in terms of our power needs? Remember exactly how densely populated the country is. We’re rather more people than Iceland.

  • Sam Gilman

    This kind of experiment is very useful for illustrating the challenges of living “off grid” using solar. First let’s look at the subject, who clearly leads something of a bohemian lifestyle.

    - working from home without fixed hours.
    This means that domestic chores can be done during daylight hours, as well as any cooking. If you work regular hours, you’re out when the power can be used. That’s a huge problem.

    It also means she has time to do things like cycle to power her washing machine. I wonder how that will be in 15 years time. What happens if she hurts her hip?

    - living in an apartment space alone, notably with no children.
    This means that there are far fewer clothes to wash, there is far less mess to stay on top of, far less food to cook given the floor space, and far, far, far less need to store food.

    Notably, children are absent during daylight hours. When they’re home there’s no solar. No hot rice in the morning or evening? What about evening homework, which should increasingly be done on computer?

    No children also means more time to spend on that cycling machine, on shopping daily, and other various extra activities. As well as work.

    Living alone also means a less dense area occupation rate: the balcony space available to get power from solar is more generous per person than a multiple occupancy dwelling, and she still struggles. This is a serious issue in trying to provide your power independently in urban settings.

    - in walking distance of a cheap fresh vegetable seller.
    I assume it’s walking distance, as making repeated excess driving trips to the supermarket would rather defeat the environmental goal of the project. So we know she lives in a convenient enough neighbourhood. This is not the case for everyone.

    - Has a gas heater, which is kind of cheating the off-grid thing.
    CO2 anyone? Why is the cost of gas excluded from her calculations? Why did the journalist not ask her for it? Could there be an agenda here? She also has enigmatically powered lamps.

    So basically, she is really far from the best representative of what the needs of the general population look like, something which the journalist, showing his own biases in his reporting, fails to address.

    More insidiously, there is an underlying sexist assumption in the article: it doesn’t matter if a woman has to replace the luxuries of electricity with her own labour in keeping the household going. What else would she be doing but staying at home? There’s an implied “naturalness” about it that reminds me of the 1950s patriarchal American family ideal.

    What I find fascinating is that before Fukushima, she never gave a second thought to energy use. She ran her A/C at full blast, and had her TV on all the time. I’ve heard this refrain in several articles on sudden converts to anti-nuclearism. How had these people never heard of global warming and should we really treat them as founts of wisdom on energy strategy now?

    The truth is, the idea of living off grid in a densely populated industrialised urban setting is the key to energy solutions makes no technical or economic sense. It only makes emotional sense to a certain kind of technically (often wilfully) uninformed romantic. After all, the energy we use at home is only a small proportion of the energy we use collectively every day. The numbers don’t add up, and no amount of dreaming or earnestness (or block caps) will change that.

    • Starviking

      Also, heaven help anyone who tries to emulate Solar Girl who lives in a north-facing apartment, or one which is shaded by adjoining buildings.

      Questions also have to be asked about how her husband sees these severe changes to their lifestyle – she is described as a housewife in the article.

      One final point – she appears to have made adaptations to her apartment’s electrical distribution system. Has she had these changes assessed for safety?

      • Sam Gilman

        I think “housewife” may be a mistranslation. There is no mention of anyone else having to switch to a vegetarian diet or losing their TV. She’s a woman living (and working) from home, it seems. I had a quick look for other stories about her but could find no mention of a partner.

  • Sam Gilman

    The oven works on sunny days only. A short patch of cloud leads to a dramatic loss of power. They’re a cute idea, but I wouldn’t want to rely on one if I were cooking for a family.

  • Sam Gilman

    Franz, where are you getting your figures from? They seem to be out by quite a way.

    The latest survey of geothermal I know of found a potential of 19.2GW capacity for thermal (source given on this page). The nuclear fleet pre Fukushima had a capacity of 48.9 GW (29% of average electricity demand) and post Fukushima 44.3. Source here. (There were plans to expand this to around 40% by 2019, although those are now obviously on hold). Nuclear as it was (not at full potential), was delivering more than double the entire geothermal potential.

    We can also see that geothermal has the potential to provide less than 15% of electricity demand. That’s still useful, but it’s not exactly a panacea.

    Bear in mind we need to produce more electricity, not less, if we want to decarbonise transport and industry.

    I’d be happy if thorium reactors were shown to be feasible. I’ve not seen enough yet to say we should actively base policy on them working.