By: Chunichi Shimbun Originally published in Japan Times
A family in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, is experimenting with self-sufficient living by using solar energy to generate their own electricity instead of purchasing it from a utility.
Since moving to the mountainous area of the Asahi district nine months ago, the family has adopted various energy-conservation methods, including using firewood, and has successfully managed to avoid utility costs.
The project was started by professor Masao Takano from Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Environmental Studies.
He began contemplating the feasibility of living only on natural energy after experiencing rolling blackouts in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.
Yuji Shimono, 45, a regular office worker, and his wife, Tomoko, 38, volunteered to take part in the experiment in November.
The couple relocated to Toyota from the Aichi city of Chiryu, along with their two children, 7-year-old Kako and 5-year-old Masataka.
“In summer, daytime is longer so it’s easier to prepare dinner. In winter, I have to start at 4 p.m.,” Tomoko explained while firing up some food.
In the background, the natural sound of birds fill the air as she prepares dinner.
Tomoko cooks in front of the bright entrance area of the house in order to save electricity.
The Shimono family does not own a refrigerator, rice cooker or stove. Instead, Tomoko uses a nukakudo, a portable stove often used for camping, to cook rice by burning Japanese cedar tree leaves and chaff.
She stores vegetables on a shelf near the kitchen door, away from the sunlight.
The family considered getting an environmentally friendly refrigerator, but decided against it in the end.
“For perishable food with a short expiry date like meat and fish, we eat them on the same day we purchase them,” Tomoko explained.
Since the temperature is cool in the mountains, they do not need an air conditioner in summer.
They only use electricity for the washing machine, to charge their cellphones and laptops, for lighting, the rice huller and iron.
Their one-story house is made of Japanese cedar and cypress and is not connected to any power lines.
In addition to six solar panels installed on the roof, generating up to 145 watts each, they also reserve about 10 kilowatts per hour for rainy days.
Like any other household, the Shimonos had been using a refrigerator and air conditioner prior to beginning this experiment. However, they were conscious of self-sufficiency as well, preferring to sew some of their own clothes and grow their own vegetables.
“It’s just a matter of getting used to (this lifestyle),” Tomoko said.
The amount of electricity that can be stored in reserve is the equivalent of turning on air conditioning for the entire day in a normal household.
The Shimono family managed to survive the rainy season by waiting for sunny days to do household chores that take up a large amount of electricity, such as ironing and washing clothes.
They consume an average of 300 watts per hour of electricity each day, which is 5 percent of a normal household in Japan and less than half of the energy generated by their solar panels.
“Those who want to relocate to the mountains have to be (cognizant) of an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Through this project we have proved that people can grow their own vegetables and rice, and even generate their own electricity if they want to,” said Takano.
It all depends on how people want to live their life, the couple said.
The number of people who want to generate their own electricity has increased in recent years.
According to Shokan Otsuka, architect and chairman of Okayama-based Jienegumi (Natural Energy Group), which offers consultations on energy self-sufficiency, 42 households across Japan have achieved self-sufficiency with their help since the group was established in March 2013, with 13 more in the works.
Otsuka moved to Okayama Prefecture from Fukushima Prefecture after the earthquake in 2011 and has been promoting energy self-sufficiency to his clients ever since.
Most of the people who accepted his pitch are those who have high awareness of environmental issues and “do not want to use electricity from nuclear power plants or power utility companies”.
Half of his clients live in major cities.
“Self-sufficiency is not limited to those living in the countryside. Anybody can achieve it as long as they have an area to install the equipment and enough sunlight,” explained Otsuka.