SAGAMIHARA, KANAGAWA PREF. – Watch Kazuaki Hashimoto chopping firewood for the following winter on a baking day at the end of April, and you may be forgiven for thinking he leads a rather old-fashioned lifestyle.
But Hashimoto, who recently moved from a house with an air conditioner and electric heater in each room to an energy-efficient house with a single wood stove, is at the forefront of a distinctly cutting-edge movement: living off-grid.
Hashimoto and his wife Haruko are the latest household in this lush valley in the Fujino district of Sagamihara to install an off-grid system devised by Fujino Power, a local group seeking to educate citizens about energy and empower them to generate their own electricity.
The system allows households to live partially off-grid by dividing lights and appliances between two circuit boards, one hooked up to solar panels and the other to the grid of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Surplus solar energy is stored in car batteries that the Hashimotos have housed outside in a wooden box fashioned to look like a dog kennel.
“This is so much more interesting than just installing solar panels to sell energy back to the grid,” says Hashimoto. “We’ve had nothing but a positive experience since we started using the system . . . our only regret is that we didn’t put in more Fujino Power sockets. I guess we were initially a little doubtful about whether it would be enough to serve our energy needs, but now we see that we didn’t need to be.”
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s devotion to nuclear power and lackluster reforms on renewables have dashed hopes of an energy revolution four years on from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, small-scale, grass-roots efforts such as Fujino Power are flourishing.
The government’s Basic Energy Plan, released in April, predicted renewable sources would contribute 22 to 24 percent of Japan’s energy needs by 2030, barely more than 2010’s estimate of 21 percent. The shortfall from nuclear power — now expected to make up 20 to 22 percent of energy in 2030 instead of the 53 percent foreseen in 2010 — is expected to be mostly covered by imported oil and gas.
By contrast, Germany’s response to Fukushima was to target renewable sources to supply 45 percent of its energy by 2030 and commit to closing all its nuclear power plants by 2022.
Despite hefty private investment into mega-solar farms and storage batteries, growth in the domestic solar market is now waning after the government withdrew subsidies last year. Several of Japan’s regional utilities are now refusing new contracts with mid- to large-size solar suppliers, saying their grids are unable to handle the surges in power. A consumer boom for energy-efficient devices and houses, meanwhile, has done little to crack open the “black box” of Japan’s monopolistic energy companies.
Regardless of the disheartening lack of action at a national level, there is hope in the quiet energy revolution bubbling up in town and villages across Japan, with dozens of bottom-up community initiatives generating local solar, wind or hydropower energy.
Freelance journalist Masaki Takahashi, who wrote a book about the movement called “Gotochi Denryoku Hajimemashita!” (“Local Energy Projects Have Started”) says the rhetoric is moving beyond schisms between the pro- and anti-nuclear camps as groups make a long-term commitment to generating energy that transcend the quick-fix steps to conserve electricity taken in 2011.
“There are a number of people who want to force an energy shift. It will take time and it is hard to make an impact, but the movement is taking a new shape as energy generation is being linked to community-building,” says Takahashi, who says there are as many as 100 local energy projects around the country.
Unsurprisingly, Fukushima is at the locus of the local energy movement, with six initiatives by Takahashi’s count that aim to support the prefectural government’s commitment to sourcing 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2040.
But remarkably, local energy initiatives are spread evenly all over the country, even in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, where citizens are furthest from the consequences of the Fukushima disaster.
Many of the projects leverage existing community networks, such as a 30-strong group of friends in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, who dug up the stone remains of a small hydroelectric generation waterway owned by one of the member’s grandfathers. Other projects have brought together disparate groups that had previously had little contact with each other, forging relationships between ordinary citizens, local government officials and staff at local banks.
That model was pioneered by the town of Iida in Nagano Prefecture in 2004, where a progressive mayor helped push through the Ohisama project, a citizen-funded scheme to install solar panels on the roofs of public facilities, schools and private residences. Profits from selling back to the grid are recirculated among citizens. The same model has been replicated in several other community solar projects around the country.
In all the projects, the initiatives rely on the strong leadership of a few core individuals, who overcome local opposition and skepticism by gaining people’s trust.
At Fujino Power, that role fell to Shuntaro Suzuki, who spearheaded a series of workshops to teach people to make their own solar-power battery packs, which have now been attended by over 1,100 people. Suzuki later qualified as an electrician and started to install off-grid systems across town. He has now fitted the system in 29 households, including the Hashimotos’.
Suzuki, a physical therapist by trade, began experimenting with generating his own electricity in 2006, when he hooked up a 7-watt solar-powered yacht battery to replace his aging car’s temperamental battery. When his house was affected by Tepco’s scheduled blackouts in 2011, he brought the battery inside to power his lights. He then joined a local study group discussing how they could change Fujino’s energy landscape.
“Japan needs a big change but it’s difficult because that takes government intervention. It’s better to do it person by person. If the government said ‘Let’s put solar panels on every house,’ then people would do it. But they wouldn’t become any more conscious or have any more awareness or knowledge of electricity,” Suzuki says. “We think changing people’s consciousness one by one is more effective.”
The Hashimotos are effusive about their new lifestyle and say they are encouraging their friends to try it too. They have already cut their monthly electricity bill by a fifth, down to ¥3,800. The large windows, good ventilation and better insulation in their new home have also contributed to the reduction in energy usage.
“Before there was only a short part of the year where we didn’t use air conditioning for either heating or cooling, and I’m looking forward to that season lasting much longer this year,” Haruko says. “The other day it was about 3 degrees outside but in here even without the air con on it was 27 degrees.”
The startup costs of Fujino Power’s system are also a fraction of the price of conventional household solar power systems, and even other community-led solar projects. That’s because selling back to the grid requires consumers to buy specific panels, invariably Japanese brands, for around ¥100,000 each and lithium storage batteries for about ¥150,000. But Fujino Power uses Chinese-brand panels and car batteries for a tenth of the price.
The success of Fujino Power, though small-scale, has made Suzuki optimistic that the off-grid movement in Japan will continue to grow.
“We are just trying to tell people: ‘You too can make your own energy and have a comfortable life,”‘ he says.
Sophie Knight is a researcher at Tokyo-based think tank Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, and this article is based on its recent study on new ways of living in Japan.