Introducing plans for Japan’s first smart city to be built “from scratch” in May could not have been better timed for Panasonic, the driving force behind the project to build an eco-savvy town in a Tokyo suburb by 2013.
The Tokyo area had just gone through multiple blackouts following the shutdown of nuclear power plants in Fukushima after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami in March. And calls from the general public for greater reliance on non-nuclear or renewable energy had never been louder.
The smart-town project in Fujisawa city, 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, southwest of Tokyo, which will build 1,000 houses on vacant land, began in 2009, said Teruhisa Noro, a Panasonic director for systems and equipment who is responsible for the project.
“We had closed a factory there, wondering what to do with the emptied land,” he said. “And ended up setting up an eco-town.”
Panasonic is not alone. Similar ideas had been hatched and recently disclosed by other high-technology companies in Japan like Honda, Hitachi and Toshiba. They are working, respectively, with municipal bodies in Saitama, Yokohama and Kashiwa, all near Tokyo, to reduce carbon emissions through an intelligent network of electricity grids and new equipment. All that activity has helped to create a buzz in the media here.
A number of companies are joining Panasonic on the smart-town project, including Tokyo Gas, the real estate firm Mitsui Fudosan and Accenture Japan. The town, on a parcel of 19 hectares, or 45 acres, will be the first of its kind in Japan to be built from the ground up. Not surprisingly, it will display high-tech devices made by Panasonic.
Other projects in Yokohama and Kashiwa mostly work with existing infrastructure, but the project in Fujisawa will be using Panasonic devices like solar panels, storage batteries and light bulbs based on light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, along with air-conditioners, washing machines and floor heating that will communicate with each other to maximize energy efficiency.
In a model house, Panasonic has installed ceiling LED lighting that twinkles down as natural light from outside dwindles. For central coordination, the house features a portal that can be viewed from any terminal through which residents can monitor and adjust internal electricity use.
Masahito Sugihara, a consultant with Accenture Japan and a project manager for the smart town, said that Japanese smart cities tended to be initiated and led by private-sector companies, in particular technology firms.
He said this contrasted with many smart cities in other countries, where such projects tended to be led by municipalities or by public power companies.
In other countries, “I.T. vendors and technology firms don’t come along until the very end of the phase, after all the city planning is over,” Mr. Sugihara said. The Fujisawa project inverts that process, he said, allowing Panasonic to consider things like how to install solar power systems and storage batteries first and then to come up with the best layout in terms of wiring and architecture “in order to maximize energy efficiency.”
Haruyuki Ishioh, Panasonic’s director for energy solutions, said that in this view, having a housing company in its group, Pana Home, has worked significantly to Panasonic’s advantage. “We have designed homes, for example, that have air-ventilation systems on the walls near the floor that are designed in unison with the air-conditioning system, which resulted in saving 20 to 30 percent of energy,” he said.
Activism on the smart-city front by Japanese technology companies is encouraging, said Hajime Enomoto, a senior researcher at the Research Institute for High Life, a privately financed nonprofit research institution. This was especially so, he said, given that Japanese municipalities tend not to have the authority or the budget to initiate such projects.
But the projects do raise certain questions, Mr. Enomoto said. The technology companies are using the smart-town projects to promote their energy systems and the standards that come with them. “You might end up having multiple systems that are not compatible with each other,” he said. “The need for harmonization is going to be a major task ahead.”
Smart towns that purport to empower residents to optimize their energy use face another major challenge. Japanese laws regulating generation and distribution of electricity forbid sales of electricity between homes, eliminating the potential for exchange among households to optimize energy use.
Individual households may sell electricity only to one of 10 monopolistic regional power companies. “Under the current law, you cannot channel your excess electricity to households that want it,” said Mr. Noro of Panasonic.
Mr. Enomoto said this left a major hole in the system. “It is almost pointless having an eco-town without the possibility to engage in an exchange among households in the neighborhood,” he said. “It would appear that changing the regulation is almost inevitable,” he added.
The regulatory setup in Japan, in which power companies can monopolize the generation and the distribution of electricity, has translated into a sense of dependence among consumers regarding home energy management, rather than demands for deregulation, experts said.
Takejiro Sueyoshi, a special adviser to the U.N. Environment Program, said that there was little concept among the Japanese of planning their home energy use, in part because energy had always just been there when they plugged something in. But then came the earthquake and the nuclear power crisis in March that disrupted supply, something that experts say could change attitudes.
“Previously, people thought electricity was something that was given to them from above,” Mr. Enomoto said. “But they might begin to think electricity is something you can produce yourself and then give it to friends and neighbors. That would be a natural progression.”
The New York Times