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Aichi family free of utility bills after turning to firewood, solar power

Chunichi Shimbun

A family in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, is experimenting with self-sufficient living by using solar energy to generate their own electricity instead of purchasing it from a utility.

Since moving to the mountainous area of the Asahi district nine months ago, the family has adopted various energy-conservation methods, including using firewood, and has successfully managed to avoid utility costs.

The project was started by professor Masao Takano from Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Environmental Studies.

He began contemplating the feasibility of living only on natural energy after experiencing rolling blackouts in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.

Yuji Shimono, 45, a regular office worker, and his wife, Tomoko, 38, volunteered to take part in the experiment in November.

The couple relocated to Toyota from the Aichi city of Chiryu, along with their two children, 7-year-old Kako and 5-year-old Masataka.

“In summer, daytime is longer so it’s easier to prepare dinner. In winter, I have to start at 4 p.m.,” Tomoko explained while firing up some food.

In the background, the natural sound of birds fill the air as she prepares dinner.

Tomoko cooks in front of the bright entrance area of the house in order to save electricity.

The Shimono family does not own a refrigerator, rice cooker or stove. Instead, Tomoko uses a nukakudo, a portable stove often used for camping, to cook rice by burning Japanese cedar tree leaves and chaff.

“Nukakudo and firewood are the two most essential items in our lives now,” she said.

She stores vegetables on a shelf near the kitchen door, away from the sunlight.

The family is considering getting an environmentally friendly refrigerator.

“For perishable food with a short expiry date like meat and fish, we eat them on the same day we purchase them,” Tomoko explained.

The family also uses firewood for heating and for hot water.

Since the temperature is cool in the mountains, they do not need an air conditioner in summer.

They only use electricity for the washing machine, to charge their cellphones and laptops, for lighting, the rice huller and iron.

Their one-story house is made of Japanese cedar and cypress and is not connected to any power lines.

In addition to six solar panels installed on the roof, generating up to 145 watts each, they also reserve about 10 kilowatts per hour for rainy days.

Like any other household, the Shimonos had been using a refrigerator and air conditioner prior to beginning this experiment. However, they were conscious of self-sufficiency as well, preferring to sew some of their own clothes and grow their own vegetables.

“It’s just a matter of getting used to (this lifestyle),” Tomoko said.

The amount of electricity that can be stored in reserve is the equivalent of turning on air conditioning for the entire day in a normal household.

The Shimono family managed to survive the rainy season by waiting for sunny days to do household chores that take up a large amount of electricity, such as ironing and washing clothes.

They consume an average of 300 watts per hour of electricity each day, which is 5 percent of a normal household in Japan and less than half of the energy generated by their solar panels.

“Those who want to relocate to the mountains have to be (cognizant) of an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Through this project we have proved that people can grow their own vegetables and rice, and even generate their own electricity if they want to,” said Takano.

It all depends on how people want to live their life, the couple said.

The number of people who want to generate their own electricity has increased in recent years.

According to Shokan Otsuka, architect and chairman of Okayama-based Jienegumi (Natural Energy Group), which offers consultations on energy self-sufficiency, 42 households across Japan have achieved self-sufficiency with their help since the group was established in March 2013, with 13 more in the works.

Otsuka moved to Okayama Prefecture from Fukushima Prefecture after the earthquake in 2011 and has been promoting energy self-sufficiency to his clients ever since.

Most of the people who accepted his pitch are those who have high awareness of environmental issues and “do not want to use electricity from nuclear power plants or power utility companies”.

Half of his clients live in major cities.

“Self-sufficiency is not limited to those living in the countryside. Anybody can achieve it as long as they have an area to install the equipment and enough sunlight,” explained Otsuka.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Aug. 29.

  • Starviking

    “In summer, daytime is longer so it’s easier to prepare dinner. In winter, I have to start at 4 p.m.,” Tomoko explained while firing up some food.

    Hmmm…might be hard to hold down the second job many Japanese families need to get by with a schedule like that.

    Tomoko cooks in front of the bright entrance area of the house in order to save electricity.

    Hope she isn’t troubled by pests while cooking, and I hope she uses lights in the rest of the house to prevent accidents causd by poor lighting.

    “For perishable food with a short expiry date like meat and fish, we eat them on the same day we purchase them,”

    So, daily trips to the shops?

    they also reserve about 10 kilowatts per hour for rainy days

    Sorry, this must be 10 kilowatt hours – kilowatt hours being a measure of electrical energy, and is assumable the capacity of the industrially produced battery that partly enables their sustainable lifestyle.

    The Shimono family managed to survive the rainy season by waiting for sunny days to do household chores that take up a large amount of electricity, such as ironing and washing clothes.

    Must have been very sweaty and uncomfortable by the end of the rainy season: I hope they didn’t get any skin conditions from it.

    They consume an average of 300 watts per hour of electricity each day

    Once again, not the right units. It is probably watt hours, but given the inexactness of this article it could well be kilowatt hours per hour. Given that a washing machine typically uses 300 kwh per load, and they have two children – I suspect the latter.

    According to Shokan Otsuka, architect and chairman of Okayama-based Jienegumi (Natural Energy Group), which offers consultations on energy self-sufficiency, 42 households across Japan have achieved self-sufficiency with their help since the group was established in March 2013, with 13 more in the works.

    So we could all be off-grid in the year 2525? Of course, we’ll have to pay for the energy-intense manufacture of our panels and batteries.

    “Self-sufficiency is not limited to those living in the countryside. Anybody can achieve it as long as they have an area to install the equipment and enough sunlight,” explained Otsuka.

    So rich landowners in the city can also benefit! Great…

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    • Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson

      > Given that a washing machine typically uses 300 kwh per load

      I think you mean 300 watt-hours; I checked mine and it is rated for 380W peak when washing and takes a little under an hour.

      Anyway, wood-burning is a great way to bring back smog to cities; one family up in the mountains running a stove makes no significant difference, of course, but there’s a reason why many cities (Japan included?) have rules against smoke-producing fuels.

      • Starviking

        Ha! The old 3-orders of magnitude error strikes again…

        Cheers for pointing that out. Shall correct.

  • J.P. Bunny

    It’s admirable that the family is showing alternate ways of living and saving energy, but I’m guessing that some aspects are going to get old very quickly. How many years of winter cooking on a grill, or no cold summer drinks because no refrigerator, can one stand? If they can happily live that way, great. But can’t see the need to deny oneself the basics that our ancestors would have given anything to have.

  • Sam Gilman

    Can people survive without being connected to the grid? Yes, they can. Well done for showing what we already knew. It’s called before the twentieth century.

    Can this be done sustainably on a broad basis? Another matter entirely. Surviving on firewood? Not for 127,000,000 people or anything like it The mountains would be stripped bare in no short time. Biomass needs lots of land. It’s also generally not got a great carbon profile despite the theory that it’s carbon neutral.

    What would the impact on gender equality be? The automation of domestic tasks – washing machines are a good example – has been a great liberator for women. Yet here we are, back to someone needing to be at home to wash the clothes when the sun is out. (I don’t know how they can manage to go more than a few days without a wash with two young kids) Someone has to be home way before the end of office hours to start cooking in winter. Like it or not, and particularly in a gendered society with different career prospects for men/fathers and women/mothers, that “someone” is almost always going to be a woman.

    No air conditioning for the old in summer? We saw what happened when people tried to save electricity in the aftermath of Fukushima: deaths that summer among the old from the effects of the heat shot up.

    This is an interesting experiment, but as a vision of the future, it’s a lot less palatable than people might romantically think.

    • greenthinker2012

      Indeed, we always look back fondly to “the good old days” but forget that our ancestors made their choices to use fossil fuels based on very good reasons.
      They were highly motivated to make their lives better.
      Those that assume the world’s poor will choose to remain energy starved and who assume the energy-rich will give up their comforts are living in a fantasy world.
      People will burn coal for energy unless we can supply them with energy that is cheaper than coal and is equally reliable and convenient.
      We must take human nature into account or we will fail in our efforts to decarbonize.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      Sam, most of your points are great, but I have no worries about Japan running out of biomass. Actually, the firewood that is sold in Japan today is already priced way above what it costs in the US, and it is clearly intended for “enthusiasts” and not a mass market.

      If you go even one step down from that, then firewood is ubiquitous anywhere outside of the cities. Suburban areas cut more in parks and greenbelts than they can ever get rid of. Throughout Tohoku, you can find piles of oak just rotting because cutting and chopping it is too much of a chore. Only enthusiasts can pay for it…(see above.)

      Combustion of really long hydrocarbons is marginal and dirty unless done at high temperatures. It is good and entertaining that people are experimenting with biomass burning like this, but human society has pretty well been there and done that. It should be tolerated, but not encouraged.

      • Starviking

        A friend of mine gets firewood for free because so much of it is left at the side of the road to rot.

        The situation where firewood would become too environmentally destructive to use widely was, I think, to support about 6 million people for a country the size of Britain. That was in the 16th Century. However, that also includes industrial processes.

        I think the “carrying capacity” of firewood in modern-day Japan is going to be higher on a per-head basis compared to that – but we have more limits on what wood we can take – we need many forests to stabilize slopes.

      • Sam Gilman

        Of course, I don’t imagine that woodburning will actually become any kind of general mainstay. But it is interesting how few people woodburning could sustain. I think Starviking has already alluded to this (and helped me to track down a reference).

        In England and Wales in the early 1530s the price of firewood began to increase rapidly because of pressure on supplies. This was pre-industrial times, and the population of the kingdom was only 3 million. This was when the conversion to coal began that eventually led to the industrial revolution.

        http://nature.berkeley.edu/er100/readings/Nef_1977.pdf

        So while it may look like we have an astonishing amount of wood going spare, it might not take more than a few percentage points of the population using wood for heating to start making inroads into Japanese forest cover.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    I am not going to be as pessimistic as most of the others about this because, well, it is doable and people can make this life choice. YouTube is full of videos of people who go offgrid in trailers and mobile homes.

    But one notices that people who go to all the trouble and expense are “special.” Just like preppers. They are hobbyists. Trying to find something. Many of the videos are very humorous and enlightening.

    You know, why do we have to destroy our way of life to improve our environment, save the planet, etc.? Why not install solar panels and the solar thermal system and just stay connected to the grid? Wood stove? OK. Sure. Use it properly and only with dry wood, and it is not too bad. Grow some vegetables. Do some other creative things and share that. But I don’t for the life of me see why we have to go back to living in caves and wasting huge amounts of time merely to get rid of conveniences and social necessities that include decent lighting and safe, clean heating.

    And now I will come clean. I have a roof full of solar panels and a wood stove. Big deal. I have had them for many years now. But I am not in any hurry to reject society, live like a hermit, and claim that we don’t need nuclear power anymore simply because I can light a match. As consumers, we can make enlightened choices. I don’t presume to be able to compete with professional producers who have been working for decades to make my life convenient.

    PS. Waking up at 4 am to light a stove every morning gets old FAST. And letting it burn all night will make the world a sooty mess.
    PPS. Aichi? I am thinking the wood stove gets used for about 7 weeks during December–February.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    Speaking of lighting a match. I will stop cursing the darkness and do so. This family could really improve their setup.

    Forgive me for sounding like Marie Antoinette. This is going to sound like a limousine liberal impression. Here goes.

    Why not use a pellet stove instead of a wood stove? The emissions are a lot less and you could run it off of some deep cycle marine batteries that you can charge from your panels. Of course you will need some more panels and some more batteries, but if you had those, you could have all the conveniences, avoid the need for a DC>AC inverter, And you could stay off grid.
    Come to think of it, why not switch out all the home appliances to DC and just run your whole home off of the panel battery system?

    I think you could set it up for about 1000 man. Maybe even 500 man. But that is such a small price to pay for saving the whole planet, right? Plus you would be supporting green industries.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    If you look carefully at the picture, you can see about 1.5 kW, possibly 1.8 kW of solar PV panels. That is a tiny system. Look up above that and you see a solar water heating system mounted on a slope behind the house. Maybe that is 100-200 liter capacity. They have rainwater running into what looks like a 30 liter jug. And the woodstove is way way over to the left.

    If they do not get some good sun, they might not have light at night. They won’t have an ofuro or any hot water save what they can heat on the stove.

    I would put the woodstove in a more central location. I would double the PV panels to recharge the batteries and use excess to heat water or cook. And a larger solar thermal water system would be nice, too. Solar thermal water heating is hugely efficient and everybody likes hot water.