OSAKA — While nuclear power provides about one-third of Japan’s electricity, the government’s goal for raising the share of alternative energy sources is a modest one — from the current 1.2 percent to a mere 3.2 percent by 2010.
However, local efforts — albeit on a small scale — have been launched throughout the country to tap more environmentally friendly energy sources.
In addition to solar and wind power, biomass has been drawing attention in recent years, especially since the government started subsidizing its use. Biomass sources include wood chips, straw, waste food and manure.
Some prefectural and municipal governments are trying to use biomass energy as a way to lift their economies.
In August, the Osaka Prefecture Forest Owners Association’s Mishima branch in Takatsuski began operating a factory that turns wood chips into pellets that can be used as fuel.
“When a tree is cut down for commercial use, about 40 percent to 50 percent of it is unusable. And wood shavings, which are obtained by thinning a forest, are usually left unused,” said Kazuyoshi Tanaka, head of the Mishima branch. “Production of fuel pellets from wood chips would maximize the use of forestry resources.”
The pellets, 2 cm long and 8 mm in diameter, are made by turning wood chips into sawdust, which is then solidified through heat and compression.
Although the 318 million yen factory can produce 1 ton of pellets per hour, it is not running at full capacity because demand is still limited.
Looking for wider use
The association, which runs a hot-spring facility nearby, uses about 700 tons of pellets a year to heat the boiler. But Tanaka said the pellets need to be put to more diverse use.
“In Sweden and Denmark, for example, wood pellets are used as heating and fuel for trucks,” Tanaka said. “It is necessary to find other uses for it than just fuel for a boiler.”
In Sweden, which is 60 percent forest, biomass energy from wood resources accounts for as much as 20 percent of primary energy production.
Another alternative energy source drawing attention is the fuel cell, which is regarded as a next-generation power system not only for automobiles but homes as well.
Fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity through a chemical reaction. In a household cogeneration system, which depends on natural gas as a hydrogen source, the heat generated in the conversion is recycled to warm the house, raising energy efficiency to about 70 percent.
Osaka Gas Co., which has been field-testing a fuel cell system since February, plans to market a 1-kw system for family use in 2005 that will be priced at around 600,000 yen.
Takeshi Tabata, manager of fuel cells and micro-gas engines at the Osaka Gas residential cogeneration development department, said owners will be able to recover the cost of installing the system within five years because it will slash their monthly electricity bills by 30,000 yen to 50,000 yen.
“We need to convince consumers of the economic advantage of the system, since the environmental benefits alone won’t sell it,” Tabata said.
An advisory panel to the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy envisions 1.2 million kw of electricity being generated by fuel cell-based household cogeneration systems in 2010. Although the target may be too optimistic, Tabata said the market has good potential for growth.
One way to encourage consumers to use energy more efficiently, experts say, is to raise their awareness by helping them generate the very energy they consume.
Keisuke Hama, a researcher at an institute affiliated with Osaka Gas, has proved the point with his own house in Nara. Hama had his 27-year-old home rebuilt to increase energy efficiency and reduce its impact on the environment. He installed solar panels and water heating equipment on the roof, insulated the windows and walls, and installed wall panels that warm the interior by absorbing heat from the sun. A wood stove was also installed.
In 2000, the first year of the project, the solar panels produced 2,941 kwh of electricity, which was more than the 2,563 kwh his three-member family consumed.
But what is more remarkable is that his family’s energy consumption started to decline on a year-on-year basis. In the second year of his project, Hama’s family consumed an average of 33 percent less power in winter.
Family effort pays off
Hama attributed the decline to energy-conservation efforts his family began making after the renovations.
“As we have become producers as well as consumers of energy, we gained the sense that we must not waste our electricity,” Hama said. “We have also begun to appreciate the benefits of the sun.
“We changed our way of life in some ways, such as taking baths early in the day when the water is still hot and washing dishes with water that is not very hot. We actually enjoyed doing it,” he said.
To let more people participate in energy generation, some areas have begun sponsoring community-based projects, funded with contributions from residents, to install solar panels or wind power systems at schools and other public buildings.
Since the launching of the first joint solar power project in 1994, in Kushima, Miyazaki Prefecture, more than 20 similar projects have been started nationwide.
“It is good that one can participate in generating alternate energy through a small monetary contribution,” said Takao Muramoto, a professor of education at Shiga University who is involved in citizen movements.
Muramoto said that in Japan, steps are needed to promote grassroots activities and boost the use of renewable energy, such as by making utilities buy a fixed amount of power generated from renewable energy sources.
“In Germany, for instance, there is a law obliging state-run power firms to purchase renewable energy at high prices so that producers of such power do not lose money,” he said. “The use of green energy will not spread only through the good will of an environmentally conscious public.”
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