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Climate change: Forget Copenhagen. What about Kuzumaki?

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

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.”