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Sunday, July 22, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
Small cities devastated by tsunami turn to green solutions
By Stuart Biggs
Rikuzentakata, like many cities on Japan's rugged northeast Pacific Coast, was in decline even before last year's tsunami killed 1,700 of its 24,000 inhabitants and destroyed most of its downtown buildings.
With two-thirds of the remaining residents homeless, Mayor Futoshi Toba questioned whether the city could recover. Damage to infrastructure and the economy, he said, would force people to move away to find jobs.
Sixteen months later, the city is trying to rebuild in a way that Toba says would reinvent the region and provide a model to overcome obstacles that have hobbled the Japanese economy for more than 20 years: the fastest-aging population in the developed world, loss of manufacturing competitiveness to China and South Korea and reliance on imported fossil fuels.
Rikuzentakata is part of a government program to create one of the country's first so-called eco-cities.
They would be smaller and more self-sufficient and would lower costs through technology and create new jobs in renewable energy to replace those lost to the decline of agriculture and fisheries.
Toba says Japan must address the depopulation of rural areas that has coincided with agriculture's shrinking role in the broader economy — from about 6 percent in the 1970s to 1.4 percent today — and it must do so as soon as possible.
"It's a race against time," he says.
New jobs and factories
Eco-cities can lead the way, says Hideaki Miyata, an engineering professor at the University of Tokyo who's advising local officials on the project.
"We can provide a solution for Japan's super-aging society," he says. "Younger people were already leaving these cities, but what we're planning to do here will provide new jobs and factories."
That's essential, says Kiyoshi Murakami, an executive at BNY Mellon Asset Management Japan who grew up in Rikuzentakata and also advises Toba.
"For the eco-city, its impact on employment is the most important thing," he says.
After the tsunami, which reached as high as the fourth story on the city's seafront hospital, Rikuzentakata joined forces with neighboring Ofunato and Sumita in the Kesen district.
They applied for aid under the national government's FutureCity program, which has an annual budget of about ($12.5 million to create blueprints for urban development that promotes environmental protection and clean-energy use.
The goal of the Kesen project is to generate at least 50 percent of the region's electricity through solar and other renewable-energy sources, reducing Kesen's near-total dependence on Tohoku Electric Power, Japan's fifth-largest utility, and lowering electricity costs for the area's 67,000 residents.
Planners say they hope to attract clean-energy companies, including makers of lithium ion batteries used to store power before it is fed to the grid.
They also envision using electric buses to ferry residents around town and rebuilding schools to double as community centers and evacuation shelters, thereby streamlining public infrastructure.
Making the Kesen project a reality hinges on how much of the central government's reconstruction spending goes to the three cities, as well as alternative-energy subsidies,
"It's important that whatever is built brings new business and is sustainable," he says. "If the government focuses only on rebuilding existing infrastructure, we'll have areas with new roads and buildings but nobody living there."
After the March 2011 tsunami damaged the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, and radiation spread across the area, polling by the Asahi newspaper found that 74 percent of those surveyed were in favor of decommissioning all of Japan's reactors.
The sour mood is deepening long-standing public disaffection with the economic and political malaise that has gripped Japan since the asset-bubble collapse of the early 1990s, says Andrew DeWit, a professor of the politics of public finance at Tokyo's Rikkyo University.
Microcosm of problems
Out of 11 cities in the government's FutureCity program, six are in the tsunami-hit northeastern region, which Jun Iio of Japan's Reconstruction Design Council says is "a microcosm of the problems being faced by all of Japan."
About a third of Rikuzentakata's population is over the age of 65. Japan's population, which peaked in 2005, is poised to shrink to 125.2 million in 2014 from 127.7 million last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
People over the age of 65 make up about 23 percent of the population, a proportion that may increase to 40 percent by 2050, government estimates show.
Smart cities can help reverse rural decline, DeWit says. There's an economic rationale for converting land to renewable-energy use.
Rice paddies that were inundated with seawater in March 2011 can yield more profit if they're covered with solar panels than if they're rehabilitated as agricultural land. "When you're sitting on land, or an old factory, rather than clear it up, you can cover it with solar panels," says Penn Bowers, a utility and trading-company analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Tokyo.
That's what Masayoshi Son, Japan's second-richest person, would like to do on irradiated farmland around the Fukushima plant, including the strict no-go area that can't be used for crops or grazing.
The CEO of mobile-phone-service provider Softbank is eager to press ahead with a vast array of solar plants producing more than 200 megawatts, enough to power about 48,600 homes.
He's awaiting passage of government legislation that would guarantee projects such as his access to the electricity grid.
Reborn, Rikuzentakata would be a fitting legacy to those who perished.
"We have to do more than simply rebuild houses," Mayor Toba says.
"If we do that but don't provide people with jobs, their lives won't get better."
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