Connect to share and comment

Climate change: Forget Copenhagen. What about Kuzumaki?

Japan launches a bold green energy experiment. It might even work.

A man looks at 100-meter-tall wind turbines during sunset at the Electric Power Development Co., Ltd's Nunobiki Plateau Wind Farm in Koriyama, north of Tokyo, Nov. 8, 2007. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

KUZUMAKI, Japan — Regardless of Copenhagen, if Japan is to realize its ambitious cuts in greenhouse gases to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, more of its towns and cities will need to look like Kuzumaki.

This isolated, sprawling town of dairy farms and vineyards in Iwate prefecture is the unlikely setting for country’s boldest experiment with renewable energy.

While its 8,000 residents endure winter temperatures as low as -25 degrees Celsius, Kuzumaki, perched in the highlands 500 kilometers north of Tokyo, is perfectly placed to undergo a carbon detox in a country that is heavily dependent on nuclear power and Middle East oil.

Evidence of Kuzumaki’s ecological credentials is everywhere, from its 15 wind turbines to the 420 solar panels that supply a quarter of the local junior high school’s electricity.

Even the cattle have been enlisted. At Kuzumaki Highland Farm, 13 tons of manure, created every day by 200 dairy cows, are mixed with scraps from a nearby restaurant and turned into liquid fertilizer and methane gas for an electrical generator in the town’s biomass facility.

Wood chips from local trees are used to power milk and cheese production and to make smokeless bark pellets for stoves and boilers installed in homes, a residential facility for the elderly and its winery.

Kuzumaki’s success hasn’t come cheap, however. It relies heavily on government subsidies; residents receive half of the 100,000 yen it costs to install a boiler in their home, while those that use solar panels receive subsidies for each kilowatt of energy generated.

Its low-carbon project stretches back to the late 1990s when the then-mayor, Tetsuo Nakamura, spotted that potential clean energy, forestry and dairy farming had to save the town from financial collapse.

Blighted by poor communications, freezing winters and a heavy dependence on cattle farming, Kuzumaki has suffered from the same population decline that threatens many other rural communities in Japan.

And so the Kuzumaki Town New Energy Vision was born. A decade on, it has generated a thriving eco-tourist industry, a food self-sufficiency rate of 200 percent (compared with just 1 percent in Tokyo) and an ever-shrinking carbon footprint.

The number of wind turbines has grown to 15, with wind power now generating 22,200 kilowatts, far more than the town’s 2,900 households need, while forests, which cover 86 percent of the town, are being expanded to suck up CO2.