Smart Community

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New way of living makes smarter use of electricity

With Tohoku municipalities trying to revitalize their economies, one area that Tohoku hopes will drive growth is the so-called smart community.

Smart communities are networks of houses, building and other structures that efficiently produce and consume electricity. The central government sees the promotion of smart communities as a growth sector, and is subsidizing municipalities to build them.

“Electricity and other lifelines were cut off by the quake and tsunami, and we wanted to have our own necessary energy. Then we learned about the government's (smart community) project, so we applied for it,” said Hiroko Komukai of the section promoting revitalization in the Miyako municipal government in Iwate Prefecture.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry decided in December to subsidize seven municipalities in Tohoku - Miyako and Kitakami in Iwate Prefecture; Yamamoto, Ohira, Ishinomaki and Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture; and Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture - in their smart community projects.

The government push for smart communities follows a global green trend. After the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, energy alternatives to nuclear power have been heavily discussed in Japan and around the world, putting smart community in the spotlight. Japan aims to export the technology and knowhow for controlling electricity usage.

The government does not yet have any specific target for the smart community business, whose original purpose before the disaster was to cut carbon dioxide emissions. But it is expected to grow. Market research company Fuji Keizai estimates the business in Japan will increase by 3.4 times to ¥3.8 trillion in 2020, from ¥1.12 trillion in 2011, while globally the business will expand 2.5-fold to ¥40.6 trillion in 2020 from ¥16.3 trillion in 2011.

“The smart community is one of the most important sectors,” said Yuta Sakaki of the Smart Community Policy Office at the Energy Department of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, a part of METI. “The market is growing and the government will continue to support municipalities to promote it.”

Focus areas

While none of the seven Tohoku regions’ smart community projects are online yet, other areas already have people living in smart houses and working in smart office buildings.

For example, Takao Hirano, 34, lives in a smart house in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, which has solar panels, a rechargeable battery that stores power generated by the panels and a hybrid car that can be plugged into the battery. There is also a monitor that shows the amount of electricity used in real time.

“When I decided to move into a smart house, I didn't know how exactly I could save utility costs,” said Hirano, who began living there with his wife and two daughters in September 2011. “Now, I know how much electricity I use in real time and I can feel my awareness has become higher.”

Toyota is one of a select few cities and areas METI has subsidized to build smart communities so that Japan can show the world working models of what the nation hopes to export. Among these communities, Yokohama, Toyota, Kitakyushu and the Keihanna area are the four most advanced areas, with the power generation and energy saving systems already operating.

In Yokohama, the Minato Mirai 21 area is the major one of three model sites, with 4,000 households living there. Structures have been equipped with many ecological features including solar power generation systems, efficient sunlight-gathering mechanisms, heat-insulating surfaces and high-reflectance coatings.

In Toyota, 67 houses are the subject of its smart community project, equipped the same way as Hirano's.

In Kitakyushu, 50 offices and factories as well as 230 households are the subject of its smart community project. The city set up a system to make electricity prices change several times a day based on the predicted supply-demand situation.

Straddling parts of Kyoto, Osaka and Nara prefectures, the Keihanna area's smart community is home to 700 households. It uses a demand-response system in which electricity prices fluctuate daily according to the predicted electricity demand based on data from the previous day.

Overseas push

Also cooperating with local governments and companies around the world in creating smart communities is the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), an organization under METI. NEDO is developing smart community technology among others related to new energy, receiving orders on comprehensive smart community projects and placing orders to makers of energy-efficient infrastructures.

Among NEDO's overseas projects that have been launched are two in New Mexico. NEDO also has planned overseas projects for Maui, Hawaii; Lyon, France; and Malaga, Spain.

Produced by The Japan Times