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Urban energy transition

Natascha Küter, Carol Smith, Brendan Barrett/ssMay 7, 2013

Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, many in Japan are talking about switching to renewable energy for a cleaner future. The “Transition town” of Fujino has already made that a reality.

A police officer walks on a pier to search for missing people as a wrecked ship (back) still rests grounded in Namie, near the striken TEPCO's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2013. March 11, 2013 marks the second anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that sent a huge wall of water into the coast of the Tohoku region, splintering whole communities, ruining swathes of prime farmland and killing nearly 19,000 people. AFP PHOTO / YOSHIKAZU TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

The earthquake, tsunami and the resulting nuclear meltdown at the atomic power plant Fukushima Daichii in 2011 was a wake-up call not just for Japan but for the entire world. Ever since, several countries have seen heated debated debates about whether growing energy demand can be met without nuclear power.

Following the catastrophe, the Japanese government led by Naoto Kan initially decided to phase out nuclear energy in Japan by 2040. Since summer 2012, all Japanese reactors – with the exception of two – have been taken off the grid. Instead, Tokyo plans to set up the world’s biggest offshore wind park along the Fukushima coast by 2020. The plan foresees installing 143 wind turbines with a total capacity of 1 gigawatts. Construction is expected to begin in July 2013.

But such ambitious projects will by no means be able to close the gaping energy gaps in Japan. Until now, the country met a third of its energy needs with nuclear power. The planned wind park is expected to produce just a fourth of the energy generated by the now abandoned Fukushima plant.

(Photo: CC/Jumanji Solar http://www.flickr.com/photos/jumanjisolar/4378071292/) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.de Aufbau Offshore-Windpark Thornton Bank, Belgien 1.Phase, 6 x Repower 5M für Repower Systems AG 19.9.2008 (c) Foto: Jan Oelker/Repower + info: jumanjisolar.blogspot.com
Japan is planning a huge offshore wind park like this one on its coastlineImage: CC/Jumanji Solar

As a result, Japan – which has few raw materials – is expected to be forced to import more coal from Australia, gas from the US, oil from the Middle East and South east Asia. Since that is likely to be expensive in the long run, the current government is now backpedaling on plans to phase out nuclear energy.

Taking the initiative

Many Japanese, on the other hand, are losing patience with their government for failing to take the necessary steps to move towards an energy transition. Individual towns and communities are taking matters into their hands by taking steps to cut their reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

They’re part of the “transition town” initiative. Central to the initiative is the belief that, rather than waiting for governments to find all the answers or for individuals to act on a large enough scale, communities can be a catalyst for the societal redesign required to respond to climate change and prepare for the coming end of cheap oil.

The Transition Town Movement is an international network of grassroots groups that can be traced back to the concept of permaculture. In a nutshell, that means undertaking sustainable economic activity.

But the movement goes beyond that to include a community-centric approach – that means making a community more socially connected and more equitable, resulting in a more fulfilling lifestyle. That’s reflected in the initiative’s name - Transition Towns in Japan identify themselves with the initials “TT,” which also stand for the Japanese words tanoshiku and tsunagaru, meaning “having fun” and “networking.”

The Japanese town of Fujino is a prime example. In 2008, the town’s 10,000 residents set up Japan’s first Transition Town. They launched their own currency - the Yorozuya (meaning “general store” in Japanese) - to strengthen community links and to make them economically independent.

People learn how to grow crops Photo: CC/Samuel Mann http://www.flickr.com/photos/21218849@N03/3055266364/
People learn how to grow their own food like here in New ZealandImage: CC/Samuel Mann

The Yorozuya project began playing a major role in stimulating local networking. It started with 15 members in 2009 and has now grown to include 150 households. Those participating can exchange goods and eat at restaurants using the currency. The network also thrives by targeting local needs, such as providing pet care, weeding vegetable gardens, and picking up children. It further serves to connect those in need with those who can give a hand.

Energy transition: no longer why but how

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Fujino’s popularity as a transition town has grown. Hide Enomoto, co-founder of the Fujino transition town initiative says people around Japan are realizing just how important it is to switch towards cleaner sources of energy. “The people are no longer asking ‘why do we need an energy transition?,” Enomoto said. “Rather ‘how are we going to do it?”

Following the Fukushima disaster, many in Japan began thinking about where their electricity came from and other energy issues that they had ignored until then.

The power failures following the earthquake had a huge impact on the daily lives of people used to living in homes with plenty of electrical gadgets. Many began to realize the importance of energy self-sufficiency and diversity and started to take an interest in systems that can generate electricity at home, such as solar power.

That’s one reason Fujino holds monthly workshops where participants learn how they can build and install a home solar system with photovoltaic panels and batteries as part of a campaign called “An Energy Shift Starting at Home.”

Initially, participants initially learned from one another, but the workshop began to attract attention from a wider public and within six months it was being introduced on TV and in magazines. Now the workshops host not only local residents, but increasingly people from outside communities.

By summer 2012, the accumulated output of all the solar power generators assembled at the workshop amounted to over 10,000 watts. At local festivals and events, organizers ask past workshop participants to bring their systems to contribute to the electric supply needed to power the events.

Grassroots approach

The do-it-yourself approach is another reason the Transition movement is gaining ground around the world. Founded in 2005 by British environmental activist Rob Hopkins, there are currently around 450 official Transition Initiatives and another almost 600 communities applying to become one, according to the Transition network.

In Japan alone, there are preparations each week for the start of a new transition town. That helps in perpetuating the movement’s philosophy of a grassroots approach. Followers believe that it’s communities – and not governments – that drive societal change to adapt to climate change and cut reliance on oil.

Huge alternative energy potential

If some studies are to be believed, Japan could in future completely turn its back on fossil fuels and meets its entire energy needs through renewable energy by 2050. That’s according to the German-Japanese study ‘”Energy Rich Japan” which conducted an analysis as far back as 2003.

The country certainly has the right weather conditions – the wind along Japan’s 10,000-kilometer coastline could with the help of offshore plants be turned into energy. However, so far Japan only draws 0.4 percent of its energy from wind power.

Besides, the Japanese islands lie along the Pacific Ring of Fire. During test drilling, experts discovered such high temperatures at a depth of two kilometers that they believe Japan could meet a third of its energy needs with geothermal energy.

Japan also has huge untapped solar power potential. With 22 percent higher sun radiation than the global average, experts estimate that installing solar plants on just five percent of the country’s land mass would suffice to meet the country’s entire energy needs.

A large solar power park in Ukraine Photo: CC/Activ Solar http://www.flickr.com/photos/activsolar/8450281002/
Japan could do this given its huge solar power potentialImage: CC/Activ Solar

A mix of all these various energy sources could help Japan cut its reliance on energy imports – turning “transition town” into “transition country.”

This article is based on an article by our cooperation partner OurWorld2.0. It in turn draws on an article by Yuriko Yoneda and is licensed under Creative Commons. CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0-Lizenz:http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/