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[ISHES Newsletter #14]Renewable Energy and the Local Energy Cycle - Kesennuma Takes the Challenge

2019/09/25 18:21:05


ISHES Newsletter #14
September 25, 2019

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Copyright (c) 2019

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan


Dear Readers,

Welcome to our 14th issue of the ISHES Newsletter! In this September 2019 issue, you will find the following articles:

- Renewable Energy and the Local Energy Cycle - Kesennuma Takes the Challenge

Kesenuma is a community that uses energy from the environment as one pillar of its post-disaster recovery plans after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck in March 2011. Here we look at how they installed biomass generators (wood-burning) and are working to create a local energy cycle using both the electricity and heat generated.

- A new article from the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom

In this issue we share a new instalment from an article series by Noriko Takigami, from the Secretariat of the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom, entitled "Yin and yang and you," uploaded on the Institute's website.

- Recommended articles from the JFS Newsletter on sustainability issues in Japan

Have you heard of the concept of "nai-mono-wa-nai" as an idea that can contribute to a happy society that does not damage the Earth? We share a true story about the small island town of Ama, which adopted those words as its slogan and way of living.


Renewable Energy and the Local Energy Cycle - Kesennuma Takes the Challenge


By Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES)

Kesennuma City is located on the northeastern tip of Miyagi Prefecture in Japan and has a population of just over 60,000. It is mostly surrounded by branches of the Kitakami mountain range and faces the Pacific Ocean. The shoreline area has a diverse ria coast topography with peninsulas and intricate coves. The beautiful coastal features have earned designation as national and quasi-national parks.

Kesennuma was heavily damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region of Japan in March 2011. Kesennuma has made renewable energy one of the pillars of its reconstruction policy. The text below is from an interview with the central figure of the renewable energy project in Kesennuma ? Mr. Masaki Takahashi, president of Kesennuma Local Energy Development, Ltd.

How the project started

Kesennuma City established the Kesennuma-shi earthquake disaster reconstruction council and started to formulate a reconstruction policy in June 2011. The mayor told me that the city was planning to set up a citizen's committee as a working group to consider ideas for the reconstruction policy, and asked me to become the chair. Looking at the list of the members, I noticed some people from Kesennuma who were active in Tokyo, so I told the mayor, "It is tough just dealing with the immediate situation around me, so I'd prefer you find a chair who is not directly affected by the disaster." But he replied, "If a person is not directly affected, it is often hard to state an opinion, and everyone knows you have been affected by the disaster." So I decided to take on the offer.

We discussed the pillars of the reconstruction plan from several angles and one of them was energy issue. From our difficult experience just after the disaster when electricity and oil supplies were both cut off, we came to a decision to introduce locally produced renewable energy for local use. After formulating the reconstruction plan, power generation projects using solar and wind were started by private businesses of the city. But we thought there must be something that was a better match for Kesennuma, and we came up with the idea of wood biomass energy. Forest-covered mountains rise from the sea here, and so one of the municipal employees suggested that we should make the most of the trees in the forests. At first, we asked a forestry cooperative to get involved, but it was not prepared to take the lead. But I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the person who had thought up the idea and came to talk to me on a number of issues, so I suggested we just get started with some research. That's how it all began.

The forest industry in Japan has been declining since the 1960s when construction methods started focusing on the use of concrete as a construction material. The forest situation in Kesennuma was also affected. Here, the planted forests were not being properly managed because the price of timber had dropped, so the forest condition was deteriorating. If we were to introduce biomass power generation, people in the town would be happy because they could use locally produced energy. If the locally produced wood from thinning the forests was used as fuel for biomass power generation, the forests could be maintained better, so the private forest owners would be happy too. From the well-maintained forests, nutrients would flow out to the sea, so fishermen would be happy too. Only oil companies would not be so happy because the demand for oil as a fuel would decrease.

My company, Kesennuma Shokai KK, sells petroleum products. Some of my employees asked me why I would get into a competing line of business. Nevertheless, I kept on working on the project, explaining that selling wood chips was essentially in the same line of business as selling petroleum products. Both are a type of fuel. Wood chips would just be another product.

Launch of the project as a business venture

Biomass generation in Japan is generally only utilized to generate electricity. In terms of energy efficiency, producing electricity from wood is only about 30 percent efficient at most. This means that the remaining 70 percent is left unused as thermal energy. We decided to use this otherwise-wasted energy to supply thermal energy to help our community's recovery.

At first, we considered supplying the biomass heat to our city hall, but it only uses heating until around 5 p.m. We wondered which facilities use heat 24 hours a day, and came up with the idea of hotels and hospitals. The largest hospital in the city was planning to relocate at the time, so we went to a hotel first. The hotel accepted the idea because its heating costs would be cheaper than using oil, and it also promised to use the heat for years into the future if the system worked well, so we decided to start the project.

We ordered an electricity generation plant from a German manufacturer and installed two gasification units, each with a generation capacity of 400 kilowatts. The total generation output is 800 kilowatts, equivalent to the electricity consumption of about 1,600 households.

Gasification systems generate electricity by engines that burn gases generated by the gasification of fuels such as chips and pellets made from wood biomass. The amount thermal energy recovered can be at least twice the amount of electrical energy generated, so if the electricity generation efficiency is around 30 percent, the total energy efficiency can be nearly 80 percent. The heat produced is supplied as hot water at a temperature of 80 to 90 degrees Celsius.

The forestry cooperative that had initially said they could not run the project now said they would support it. They supported us because we had consulted with them right from the beginning. I think that is important. Right to this day, they have continued to provide us a stable supply of wood from forest thinning, at the initially-agreed price.

We had some difficulties turning this into a business. One was financing. Although we had received various grants at the time, we still needed to borrow 1.1 billion yen (about US$9.26 million). We consulted potential funders including a credit association and a grant foundation about the situation, explaining we had a viable business idea but didn't have enough money to make it work. They encouraged us to do it as a symbol of reconstruction and offered financial assistance, so we were able to start it as a business.

To operate this project, I established Kesennuma Local Energy Development, Ltd. The company started its business with capital of one million yen (about US$9,256) in total, including 450,000 yen (about US$4,167) from myself, 450,000 yen from another member who proposed the project, and 100,000 yen (about US$925.9) from the credit association, and my own company Kesennuma Shokai did not finance any.

Sustainable wood supply

As I mentioned, the forests in Kesennuma had been neglected. When we talked to private forest owners some would say, "I am willing to supply wood from my forest if some is willing to do the logging (thinning), because I don't want to leave the forest unmanaged." Others would say, "I would like to log some trees but don't know how, so please train me."

So we started by offering trainings on forestry work. We offered sessions on how to log trees, how to transport the logs out, and how to build a logging road network. Cumulative participants so far are now at more than 700 people. Then, we made groups among the participants who can cut the trees. There were forest owners who were willing to make their timber available if their under-managed forests could be maintained properly. So we arranged for teams of loggers to cut the trees in those forests. This year, we made further progress by creating a "Forest Worker" program. It has a database to registers trained loggers who are also willing to work alone, and match them with forest owners.

Some forest owners say, "Whoever logs the trees can keep the revenues, and I'll be happy as long as the forest is in good condition and it doesn't cost me any money." Other owners say, "I cannot do the logging alone, so I need a helper." If an owner needs a helper, we ask the owner to pay some remuneration based on the skill level.

We also requested the mayor to recruit some workers from the Local Vitalization Cooperators program (a central government program in Japan that recruits applicants from all over Japan and assigns them to work for local community revitalization), and we received two forest workers. The Kesennuma municipality applied for personnel in several categories, but responses only came quickly for the forestry positions. This year, we posted an announcement for two more positions and filled them immediately. Our teams of loggers are mostly retirees over the age of 60, but the Local Vitalization Cooperators who come to us are young people.

The cogeneration plant (800 kilowatts) currently operating consumes 8,000 tons of wood annually. Considering the amount of forest area of Kesennuma, we still have plenty of biomass resources. We calculated that if we can manage all the forests properly by thinning the trees, we can increase to seven plants.

Community currency

We pay a price of 6,000 yen (about US$55.6) per ton to purchase the wood obtained by thinning of the forests, and use this as fuel. The market price is about 3,000 yen (about US$27.8) per ton, but that is not economically viable for producers, which is why private forests are otherwise left unmanaged. That's why we double the price by paying an additional 3,000 yen, but this is paid in what we call "Reneria," a community currency.

The Reneria was named in association with ideas like the Forest of Re:us (a local revitalization program) and "renewable energy." Currently, the currency is used at about 180 shops in the city. The business owners became interested in participating when they learned no transaction charges were involved. When someone pays with Reneria, member shop owners who receive it can use the same currency at other member shops, buy gasoline at my gas station, or exchange it for real money.

Currently, 2,000 out of 8,000 tons of wood used for electricity and heat generation are purchased from individuals, and the remaining 6,000 tons are purchased from forestry associations and other organizations. Since we only pay Reneria to individuals, this means six million yen (about US$55,555) of Reneria is put into circulation annually. But that would mean only people who are involved in forestry would have the currency. So to have it circulate among other people, we organized observation tours for anyone to take. Most tourists take the 3,000 yen tour option (about US$27.8), and we give them 1,000 yen back (US$9.3) in Reneria.

We are hoping to circulate money in the local economy through the use of this community currency. Through collaboration with the city, we will be able to expand the initiative. That's our next step.

Future prospects

In the future, we would like to supply energy that can contribute to the community by reducing the cost of electricity and heat generation and improving the financial returns. For example, we have an idea of supplying heat to agricultural greenhouses. We could also collect used disposable chopsticks at home as fuel and pay Reneria in return. We are hoping to raise awareness about our efforts among our citizens and ask for their support.

I have been invited to some new employee trainings at companies and university classes. I introduced our efforts by showing our introduction video and had a discussion on local issues. As a member of community, I would like to create a system which can provide training or learning opportunities for business people as well as for children in urban areas.


The guest of this issue, Masaki Takahashi, has been making various efforts to revitalize the community, transform environmentally friendly efforts into sustainable ones, and maintain a flow of wood from forests while connecting people more to the forests. We hope more citizens will learn about and support these efforts, which make the project more sustainable, circulate energy within in the community, and revitalize the economy.
*1 USD=108 JPY


New articles from the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom

In this section we introduce the latest articles posted on the website of the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom.

Here we provided an article entitled "Yin and yang and you," which is part of a regular series by Noriko Takigami of the Secretariat of the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom, sharing personal observations from her ongoing study of the Analects of Confucius.

Yin and yang and you


Recommended articles from the JFS Newsletter on sustainability issues in Japan

In this regular section of each issue of the ISHES Newsletter, we recommend past articles from Japan for Sustainability newsletters. The non-profit JFS was active from August 2002 until July 2018, sending out information to the world with the aim of moving society in Japan and the world toward being more sustainable and happier.

The small town of Ama on a remote island in Japan adopted the slogan "nai-mono-wa-nai." It has two meanings. One is "We don't have it here, so just accept the situation." A second meaning is "There is nothing that is not here" (in other words, everything is here)! Read on to see the amazing results of this slogan and its impacts on life in this town.

"Nai-Mono-Wa-Nai": Ama Town's Concept of Sufficiency and Message to the World


We hope you enjoyed reading our newsletter.
Thank you for your kind support.

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society

*The Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) is an organization based in Japan that is working to build a happy and sustainable society. To this end, we need to think about happiness, the economy and society together by learning from, analyzing, and thinking about theories and cases in Japan and around the world on what happiness is and what kind of economy and society will create and support happiness.

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