In September, Kyushu Electric Power announced it would stop buying energy from solar-power suppliers due to over-supply and a lack of transmission capacity, setting off a debate about Japan’s dedication to renewable energy. While the decision to halt purchases of solar energy from any supplier whose capacity is more than 50kW doesn’t affect home solar systems, homeowners will be affected sooner or later.

As part of the government’s plan to promote renewable energy, utilities have been compelled to buy excess electricity at fixed rates from homes with solar systems. Those rates, however, have been dropping since the program was implemented in 2012. Home builders used this program to sell solar-equipped houses by stressing that the money earned through electricity sales would offset loan payments. But as rates dropped, this sales point became less effective to the point where some companies abandoned the idea because they don’t want to be blamed if a customer is still paying off a mortgage when the program ends. In any case, there are limits as to how many years a utility is obliged to buy electricity from homes.

The issue is not the solar “bubble,” but rather the nature of power companies. This was the subject of a symposium held at the head offices of the Johnan Shinkin Bank in Tokyo on Oct. 22, where former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a convert to renewable energy, was the keynote speaker. Under discussion was greater local control over energy distribution. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pledged to “recreate regional areas,” but using the central government. This symposium advocated municipalities recreate areas themselves, with energy redistribution as the first priority.

For homeowners, this means satisfying their own energy needs. Until an affordable, practical storage system is available, solar panels can only do this when the sun is out, and commercial energy-saving technology still requires a connection to power utilities. In Japan, the two most popular are EcoCute and Ene-Farm.

The former is based on heat-pump technology. Various companies have been selling EcoCute water heaters since 2001, and by the end of that decade 2 million units were in Japanese homes. About 10 percent of all new houses use the system. EcoCute derives two units of heat energy from ambient air for every unit of electrical energy it consumes, thus reducing electricity usage for heating by almost two-thirds. Costs are further reduced if water is heated at night, when electricity rates are lower, and stored in a special tank.

Ene-Farm is a fuel cell that uses natural or liquefied petroleum (LP) gas to generate electricity as a byproduct of normal heating. Efficiency is higher than power from utilities since the electricity doesn’t travel — much of the energy made in power plants is lost during transmission.

These systems reduce energy consumption, but the homeowner still relies primarily on utilities, which promote them. And until next year, at least, Ene Farm purchasers can receive a subsidy from the central government.

The greatest degree of energy independence is provided by “passive houses,” which have less to do with money-making technology than with design. Passive houses use orientation, “superinsulation,” special windows, airtightness and natural ventilation to keep the interior of a building climate controlled. There is little need for outside energy, since the heat from subsidiary sources — cooking, bathing, even the body heat of residents and pets — which is usually lost, is circulated throughout the structure. Standards are strict, making passive houses cost around 10-20 percent more than conventional ones to build, but running costs are markedly lower over the long term.

Kevin Meyerson, a resident of Japan for 25 years, built a passive house in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, several years ago. After looking into Japanese smart houses, which use software to monitor and control energy supply, he asked an American organization about passive houses and they gave him the name of an architect who had brought the concept to Japan.

“Passive House Japan has trained several hundred architects in using a planning package created by the Passive House Institute in Germany,” says Meyerson. The government does not offer the same kinds of subsidies or tax breaks for passive houses that they do for energy saving technologies that benefit manufacturers and utilities.

“It’s a disappointment,” he says. “Most countries dictate that new construction meet certain energy saving criteria. In Japan, there are no comparable energy standards in the building code.”

At the Johnan symposium, Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, lamented this situation, saying that Japan was once the most energy-efficient country in the world, but now, among the 16 developed nations, it ranks ninth in industry, seventh in housing, and 14th in commercial buildings.

As Meyerson stresses, most energy in Japan is consumed by structures, so the debate about nuclear versus fossil fuels versus renewables in Japan’s power generation scheme would be more sensible if consumption was first rationalized as much as possible for residences and office buildings.

For more information on passive housing, visit bit.ly/ph11-1. A conversation with Kevin Meyerson can be found at catforehead.wordpress.com

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