‘Smart city’ projects revived by disasters


Staff Writer

Ever since the March 11 disasters exposed the nation’s dependence on conventional power sources and infrastructure, energy-efficient “smart city” projects have drawn increasing attention.

So far Japan has bucked the global trend toward smart cities, which take advantage of IT-controlled power grids and renewable energy. But the quake and the subsequent nuclear crisis have persuaded policy-makers and businesses to kick-start the construction of communities that can use multiple energy sources, experts say.

“The sense of need changed after March 11,” said Teruyoshi Takesue, an analyst specializing in advanced technology at Nomura Research Institute Ltd.

“Before March 11, the reason to build the cities was unclear,” he said. “But after that day, the central and local governments strongly felt the necessity to tackle the issue as a step to protect the infrastructure from natural disasters.”

The outlook for related business is bullish as well, experts say.

According to marketing and consulting firm Fuji Keizai Co., the domestic market for related devices is expected to grow more than five-fold from 2010 to 2020, reaching ¥491.3 billion.

The devices include smart meters that send data to utilities for monitoring power consumption and billing, and power conditioners that can improve the quality of the electricity.

The market for electric and other fuel-efficient cars will grow even further — more than 40 times to ¥599.5 billion in the same year, it said in a recent report.

Industries also believe that smart-city technology has huge export potential.

Real estate firm Mitsui Fudosan Co. is building one of the largest smart cities, Kashiwanoha Campus City in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, about 30 km northeast of Tokyo, in cooperation with the University of Tokyo and Chiba University.

At the center of the project is a 127,000-sq.-meter space where housing, offices, hotels and other commercial complexes will be completed by 2014.

“By realizing our concept of ‘living with environments’ here in the suburb of Tokyo, we hope we can expand our business at home and abroad,” Takahito Hashimoto, project leader for Mitsui Fudosan’s Kashiwanoha Campus City project, said. “We aim to create the future model of communities here,” he said.

What puts Kashiwanoha a bit ahead of other domestic projects is that there are already about 1,100 households on the premises, unlike others that are still in the trial stage. About 2,000 more households are expected to move in by spring 2014, according to Hashimoto.

On some dwelling walls, a small monitor keeps track of carbon dioxide emissions based on the amount of electricity, gas and hot water consumed.

One day, a central control center will monitor supply and demand rates for local energy, including solar and wind, and for heat generated by hot springs and biofuels. By 2030, the city aims to cut its carbon emissions by 60 percent.

Unlike Kashiwanoha, however, other smart city projects are still on a trial basis and no one has actually moved in.

Home builder Toyota Housing Corp. said in June it started selling trial smart-energy houses that are part of a low-carbon community system pilot project in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.

Electronics giant Panasonic Corp. is working with eight other companies on a project called the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town.

Toshiba Corp. will start a similar project in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture.

One reason for the slow development of smart cities is the absence of successful business models, Takesue of Nomura said. “There are no solid profit models” regarding the size of investment in huge infrastructure and whether an investor could earn a return from them, he said.

But stronger leadership may help, Takesue added. “It would be easier to realize such cities if local governments take the initiative more to introduce them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Eri Sano, assistant manager of Fuji Keizai’s smart community outlook project, said improved technologies can help balance supply and demand for power, at least at a local level.

Such breakthroughs would speed up the launch of smart communities now in the trial stage, she added.