Climate change: Forget Copenhagen. What about Kuzumaki?

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.

The result has been an impressive dent in Kuzumaki’s carbon output, from 39,000 tons of CO2 a decade ago to just 6,000 tons. In 2007, renewables provided 161 percent of its energy needs; in a good year, when the winds are strong, that can rise to 185 percent, a higher level of energy self-sufficiency than any comparably sized town.

Officials say their success in proving that even the remotest mountain community can live sustainably has made it the envy of towns and villages throughout Japan.

“We have hundreds of groups coming every year to look at our facilities,” said Haruyuki Yoshizawa of the local agriculture, forestry, environment and energy department. “They share our vision, but that’s usually as far as it goes — a vision.

“No one else in Japan is combining wind, solar and biomass the way we are. Even if they wanted to it would be difficult. The power companies don’t want to invest in things like biomass. And as former government entities they still have a huge influence over energy policy.”

Japan’s enthusiasm for renewables remains lukewarm, despite a claim this week by the Global Wind Energy Council that wind power alone can help developed nations achieve as much as 65 percent of the cuts pledged by 2020.

According to the council, Japan did not even rank in the top 10 of countries in wind power capacity last year. While the U.S. added 8.3 gigawatts in new wind power capacity in 2008, Japan, installed just 346 megawatts.

And while global wind power generation in Asia is expected to triple over the next five years, the bulk of that growth will be seen in China, not Japan.

Campaigners accept that geographical factors mean it will be difficult to replicate Kuzumaki’s clean energy initiative on a grand scale, but add that the biggest obstacle to investment in clean energy is political.

Japan’s established power companies are desperate to keep independent energy producers out of their regional fiefdoms, said Noriaki Yamashita, a senior researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Energy in Tokyo.

“Kuzumaki is a shining example of what is possible, but it is difficult to adapt to other areas because of resistance from the utilities,” he said. “Even if, like Tokyo, they can’t create their own clean energy, it should be possible for cities to buy in surplus electricity, heat and fuel from rural areas. They can’t produce, but they can buy.

“But the power companies are only interested in intensive production through nuclear and gas- and coal-fired power stations, which they see as more reliable. There is no interest in exchanging electricity between regional companies, and I can’t see that mindset changing.”

In the meantime, Kuzumaki’s wind turbines will keep turning, driving a bold environmental experiment in a town that risked sinking into obscurity without it.

The town office says there is scope for as many as 80 wind turbines atop the Kamisodegawa Highlands, but the harsh financial climate, coupled with falling oil prices and an apparent addiction to nuclear power, means no one is sure when they will be built.

That doesn’t seem to bother Yoshizawa, whose town welcomed more than half a million visitors last year, up from 60,000 when the wind turbines appeared about a decade ago.

“They don’t just come to eat our delicious ice cream,” he said. “They come to see what a clean energy revolution really looks like.”