FEATURE: Japan's "smart cities" gear up for disastersKyodo News International, Inc.
KASHIWA, Japan, Aug. 5 -- (Kyodo) _ (EDS: THIS IS THE FIRST IN A TWO-PART SERIES ON SMART CITY PROJECTS, TWO PHOTOS AVAILABLE)
Since power shortages following the triple disaster that hit Japan in March last year made people keenly aware of the need for better energy management, the concept of energy-efficient "smart cities" has been catching on in the country.
Ideas for such environment-friendly communities with state-of-the-art technologies are flourishing especially in the disaster-hit northeastern Tohoku region, as the government encourages businesses and municipalities to launch smart cities projects by offering subsidies to help spur recovery.
In addition to smart cities projects across Japan that had gotten underway before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis, around 50 initiatives have emerged to build efficient communities in Tohoku.
Among them, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry selected in April eight pioneer projects in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures as candidates to receive subsidies the ministry will provide by March 2016 to promote smart communities.
In a fiscal 2011 extra budget, the government earmarked 8.06 billion yen for such subsidies.
The eight initiatives aim at achieving optimal energy use through the introduction of clean energy sources, including those for Tohoku factories of major manufacturers such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Nippon Steel Corp. as well as a group of local seafood processing companies.
An existing smart city in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, can serve as a model for those Tohoku projects still in the planning stage.
The 273-hectare community being developed alongside a train station in the suburban area can demonstrate various steps to enable its residents to sustain themselves in the event of blackouts caused by disasters and other contingencies.
The front-runner "Kashiwa-no-ha campus city project," undertaken by major real estate agency Mitsui Fudosan Co., has introduced solar- and wind-power generators and a 2,000-kilowatt storage battery and secures water supply by tapping groundwater.
The community developed on a former golf course will be completed in 2014 with high-rise housing complexes, university campuses, parks, a shopping mall and a hospital. Its total population including commuters will reach 26,000.
Seiji Nakata, a Mitsui Fudosan project manager of the planning group for the campus city, said electricity stored at night in the smart city can theoretically power 150 households for a day, or 1,000 households for a couple of hours. About 4,000 people in some 1,300 households now live in the community, which opened in 2007.
"Following the March 2011 disaster, residents were troubled as elevators stopped and rolling blackouts were implemented. The Internet connection was also severed," Nakata said. "We aim to ease a utility's exclusive control on electric grids and allow power stored in a shopping mall to be diverted to residential zones in the future."
To better respond to future disasters, Kashiwa-no-ha residents have established self-help groups to enhance communications via wireless devices in emergencies, he said. In March this year, they organized anti-disaster drills including cooking meals with food and water stockpiled in the community.
In the spring of 2014, Mitsui Fudosan plans to launch a program to comprehensively control energy consumption in the area by adopting "smart grid" advanced power delivery systems.
For efficient energy management, the company will install in 2,500 households "smart meters," which will showcase electricity, gas and water consumption in each house to encourage energy conservation.
To run the smart community, Mitsui Fudosan has tied up with such companies as Japanese electronics makers Hitachi Ltd. and Sharp Corp., an affiliate of South Korea's LG Electronics Inc. and U.S. computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co.
"We plan to further boost the community's power generation capacity to sustainably achieve self-sufficiency in electricity supply," Nakata said.
The smart city will adopt more clean energy sources in the future, including biogas generated from raw garbage, solar heat and geothermal energy and promote energy-saving efforts by installing light-emitting diode bulbs and introducing an electric vehicle sharing system.
Nakata said some people showed interests in anti-disaster measures implemented in the smart city. But he said sales of housing units have failed to grow sharply amid fears over relatively high levels of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
He said the community in Kashiwa is expected to serve as "a lab for smart city experiments" so that companies involved can build similar energy-efficient cities overseas.
"The definition of smart cities is not yet fixed in the world, so we'd like to create a de facto standard," Nakata said. "The important point is to involve people who actually live in the community, instead of relying too much on the logic of companies."
Manabu Fukuchi, a senior consultant on infrastructure and energy industries at Nomura Research Institute, said smart cities in Japan are relatively smaller in size than in other countries, especially in fast-rising emerging economies such as China.
"The Japanese smart cities should serve as a 'showcase' for technologies and expertise of domestic companies," he said. "As for Tohoku projects, developers must think how they can benefit local residents, including elderly people, and who will finance the new initiatives."