REVITALIZING JAPAN–Creative use of land / Smart cities essential to Japan’s future

Kenichi Nishiyama sat at a desk to begin the day’s work. The five-tatami mat room, named “the telecommute room,” was equipped with a monitor for teleconferencing, a shredder and other equipment provided by his company.

Nishiyama, 35, doesn’t commute to work. He works from home in a high-rise condominium complex in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, for Quest-Computer Co., a software developer in Chuo Ward, Tokyo.

In 2008, the company started purchasing condo units in Chiba and other parts of the Tokyo metropolitan area to use as housing for its employees, encouraging them to do their work from home.

Currently, four of the firm’s 25 employees telecommute. The company plans eventually to allow all employees–except those who already own houses–to live and work at condos it provides.

Telecommuting initiatives are increasing among major companies as well. Sompo Japan Insurance Inc. in April launched a system giving its 18,000 employees the choice of working from the comfort of home.

They believe this will allow staff to continue to perform their duties in the event of a major disaster that prevents them from coming to work. The new system also is expected to reduce the company’s electricity consumption.

In addition to the widespread use of the Internet and other digital information technologies, many factors have encouraged companies to introduce work-at-home systems.

— After the Great East Japan Earthquake, more than 5 million commuters were stranded in central Tokyo, unable to return home due to disrupted transportation networks.

— After the disaster, companies recognized the risk of working at a single location during rolling blackouts.

— Reducing operations in office buildings has high electricity-saving potential.

The government estimated that having just one employee telecommute can reduce about 1.65 kilowatt-hours of electricity consumption in the office per day. However, if the employee ends up consuming more than this amount of power at home, the savings are meaningless.

Smart grids, next-generation electric power supply networks that can minimize power consumption for entire communities, are expected to help address this problem.

A demonstration trial of a smart grid sponsored by the South Korean government is under way at a housing complex with about 3,000 units on Jeju Island at the southern tip of the country.

Residents of the complex can monitor the amount of electricity being consumed by TVs and other household appliances on monitor screens made specifically for the trial.

To encourage power saving, electricity rates vary depending on the time period. For example, rates are higher during peak demand hours–much like a new power rate system Tokyo Electric Power Co. plans to introduce this summer.

Some households were provided smartphones and tablet computers that communicate with the monitors over a wireless network.

Cho Yong Mi, 45, one of the trial’s participants, uses the tablet to do such things as turn off appliances she forgets to switch off. She also washes clothing at night when electricity rates are lower.

“I have become conscious of consuming electricity at lower costs and more efficiently,” Cho said. Under the system, she has cut her monthly electricity bills by about 10 percent.

Initiatives by Japanese companies to introduce a system in which multiple power sources are used to increase efficiency are under way.

The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), an independent administrative institution, has conducted a joint trial with the United States to combine solar power and fuel cells with electricity from power utilities. The experiment aims to produce the best mix of power sources.

Nine Japanese firms, including Shimizu Corp., Sharp Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Tokyo Gas Co., were involved in the project, which took place in Albuquerque, N.M.

The project’s May 17 launch ceremony was attended by about 120 Japanese and U.S. officials.

Shimizu Corp. President Yoichi Miyamoto said, “If stable electricity supply continues to be a challenge in post-disaster Japan, smart grid technologies will surely be utilized.”


A smarter future

A locality where energy consumption is optimized with smart grid technologies playing a central role is called a smart city.

When people in disaster-hit areas were considering plans to relocate their communities to higher ground, there were many proposals to turn them into smart cities.

However, a major hurdle to smart city projects is the huge cost. The South Korean government estimates 27.5 trillion won (about 1.86 trillion yen) will be needed from the private and public sectors to implement smart grid technologies nationwide.

In Japan’s case, introducing smart grids across the country is estimated to cost tens of trillions of yen.

Currently, electric power companies control all stages of power supply, from generation to distribution and supply to households.

Some experts have pointed out that it would be difficult for the smart grid systems to fully reflect the effects of flexibly distributing electric power.

It will likely be some time before Japanese will be able to work in homes with greater energy-saving effects than the office, and without the burden of commuting during rush hour and fears of power shortages.

However, the concept of a living, smart city will undoubtedly play a key role in the future of the Japanese archipelago.



Article from Daily Yomuiri