energy

Commemorating Japan suspending nuclear power on May 6, 2012

日本の原発の全休止が実行されて、5月6日に高円寺でパレードがありました。演説、抗議のプラカード、散歩、音楽、そしてコズプレがありました。あいにく、強い嵐が来て、雹が降っていました。それでも、幸せな会合でした。

The day after Japan suspended operations at the last nuclear plant, there was a celebration in Koenji that involved speeches, protest signs, marching, music, and fun costumes. Unfortunately, as soon as the march began, there was incredible hail and wind. Nonetheless, it was a happy parade throughout Koenji.

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Okinawa morning glory on balcony green curtain

毎朝たくさん沖縄アサガオが咲いていて、グリーン・カーテンはいっぱいになってきました。江戸アサガオとちがって、沖縄アサガオは多年生植物です。この夏は三年目です。正午
までに、花は全部しぼんでいます。

節電のために、今年まだエアコンを使っていません。エアコンを使わないと、楽しめる場所がもっとできます。

Every morning, lots of Okinawa morning glories are blooming on our balcony, and the green curtain is filling out. Unlike Edo morning glory plants, Okinawa morning glories are perennial. This year is the third summer we’ve had this deep blue flower. By noon, the flowers are already wilting.

Because of energy conservation, we haven’t used the air conditioning yet this year. Also, by not using the air conditioning, there’s more space for me to enjoy the balcony garden.

Leaving the apartment on a rainy spring day

アパートの入り口から見えた、雨降りの朝の景色です。節電ですから、電気をほとんど消しています。中と外の対象がはっきりしていますね。

This is the view from my apartment building lobby on a rainy spring day. Because of energy conservation, many lights are turned off. This increases the contrast between indoors and outdoors.

I walk through this lobby every day, and rarely think about it or consider taking a photo. Recently, I participated in the Xerox and City photo workshop at Vacant, led by Hirano Taro and organzized by Too Much magazine as part of their Romantic Geographies series. We were asked to take photos of our breakfast and then our trip to the workshop in Harajuku. It made me think more about spaces that become automatic or ignored.

Tokyo residents are more aware of energy use and lighting now. Many parts of the city are less brighly lit: from billboards to train stations to residences. By lowering our lighting, we are more attuned to natural cycles, and more sensitive to the boundaries between private and public, indoor and outdoor, personal and shared resources.

First sakura after great earthquake

井ノ頭公園が花見を中止するというのは、本当でしょうか。先が見えないので、みんなが不安で落ち着かないようです。

My friend Matt sent me this intricate sakura weather map: it shows the updated forecast for the start of cherry blossoms across the Japanese archipelago. Even if you can’t read Japanese, it’s impressive to see how much weather forecasting amplifies cherry blossom season.

Today I also heard from Twitter’s @Matt_Alt that there are big signs at Inokashira park Big asking visitors to refrain from holding cherry blossom viewing parties there. This is one of Tokyo’s most famous parks, and one of the most popular places for young people to celebrate spring with all night and all day drinking parties.

It’s now just over two weeks after the horrific natural and man-made disaster that began with the East Japan great earthquake. With looming energy shortages, national mourning for the dead, and continued fears about nuclear fallout, Tokyo life will not be the same. Yet it is still impossible to fully know what will emerge in the coming months and years.

Will these events increase or reverse Japan’s hyper-urbanization? How will people respond to new concerns about food and water safety? Can the government and industry regain trust and provide leadership? How can civil society contribute to rebuilding the country and restoring Japan’s international reputation?

And can public spaces and local businesses flourish in a time of anxiety and uncertainty?

Inside a Japanese nuclear power plant

原発についてたくさん勉強になりましたけれども、毎日の生活とエネルギーの本当のコストの問題が残っています。

A fascinating short video from IDG News Service’s @martyn_williams shows the inside of a functioning nuclear power plant in Japan. It’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world’s largest nuclear plant, on the Japan Sea, also known as the East Sea of Korea.

In the past two weeks, we have all learned many details about nuclear power generation: from containment vessels to doughnut-shaped torus, steam venting, cooling pools, basement pumps and generators, and dangers from radioactive iodine and cesium. While the Daichi survived the earthquake, several days without electricity led to pressure build-up, exposed fuel rods, explosions, and radioactive releases.

Most Japanese school children are given tours of nuclear facilities to encourage familiarization and acceptance. Watching the video above, I am struck by the incongruity of these images of rational organization with the recent realization that a lack of power can quickly turn these engineering marvels into a grave threat to human existence.

It is interesting that the video above, and I am certain the hundreds of school tours, fail to mention that the reactors serve a second and equally dangerous function: they are the storage locations for spent nuclear rods. While the active rods have control rods and secured cases, the spent rods seem to be in less protected parts of the reactors.

The explosions at the Daichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima have literally blown the lid off a scary reality that is normally kept far from conscious thinking. Everyone knows that nuclear waste and the long-term dangers it poses are the by-product of this “clean,” low carbon energy. What is less known is that these spent rods remain near population centers and alongside ocean coasts that routinely experience tsunamis and earthquakes. They remain hidden from view within the plants because the rods are difficult to transport safely and few communities would welcome them.

I expect that as the crisis becomes less acute, there will be more attention to the questions of how much energy we need, how to balance what is possible with what is prudent, and how to make visible the true costs of energy production, including the wars used to “secure” petroleum from hostile regions, and the potential contamination of people and land from nuclear power and waste.

In the coming weeks, this blog will focus on recovery from the nuclear crisis, including increased city bicycling, reduced power consumption, and other positive developments. I will also show signs of Tokyo’s spring, and other evidence that the natural world continues in spite of human activity.

Conservation and sharing

東京のみんなが協力しているのを感じます。

Thank you to everyone who has reached out to inquire about Tokyo and its residents’ wellbeing this week. We appreciate that so many people are helping with the rescue and recovery.

I saw this Tokyo conservation poster online. It’s good to focus on conservation and sharing while tolerating the after-shocks and nuclear radiation fears. Tokyo was very fortunate compared to the horrible destruction in the north, with almost 20,000 missing and dead and 500,000 homeless.

The Tokyo cityscape is much darker at night. Outdoor signage, video screens and billboards have been turned off. It seems everyone is pulling together.

A visitor’s view of “pure living” in Tokyo

PSFK and Pure Living in Tokyo

An interesting blog post about Tokyo’s environmental paradoxes by Piers Fawkes of PSFK, organizer of the Pure Living Tokyo idea salon last month sponsored by Nissan. In a very brief visit to Tokyo, Piers captures in words and photos some of the achievements in energy efficiency and resource maximization, while also lamenting wasteful consumerism and the desire to appear modern.

Mebiol: Hydrogel Agriculture Technology

Professor Mori Yuichi of Mebiol

I recently had the chance to meet Professor Mori Yuichi of Mebiol, an agriculture technology company in Kanagawa. This research professor at Waseda University started Mebiol in 1995 exploring first medical and then agriculture uses for hydrogels. I was intrigued by his Hymec system for indoor farming and Skygel for rooftop gardens.

Mebiol lettuce

Hymec looks like a plastic sheet allows for no-soil and low-soil farming, with the water and fertilizer separate from the plants roots. The roots remain dry while drawing water and nutrients from below the membrane, and oxygen from the air. Lettuce and other leaf vegetables can be grown with no soil, tomatoes with a thin layer of soil. Compared to other indoor farming techniques, Hymec uses less water, less fertilizer, less insecticides and less energy because the barrier prevents contamination from bacteria common to traditional hydroponics. Benefits include the ability to plant smaller seedlings (called “plug seedlings”), greater plant density, and more nutritious and sweeter vegetables, with tomatoes producing more Gaba and Lycopene.

Mebiol Hymec lettuce

I was intrigued by what Professor Mori calls “mobile farming.” In his words, “Hymec releases farming from the earth by a water-proof sheet” and allows farming in cities, factories, deserts, indoors, and even in waste incinerators. Some applications are the Kyoto Brighton Hotel, where tomators are grown on a concrete floor in a bamboo greenhouse, and a test farm in Dubai, where Hymec makes possible low-water farming with reduced air conditioning, and replaces costly and carbon-heavy vegetable imports from Europe.

Another Mebiol product is Skygel, mixed with soil and used for roof and slope planting. In this case, the hydrogel increases water retention, lowers run-off, and decreases the need for irrigation. Mixing Skygel and soil allows for a lighter load, ideal for roof gardens. The roof garden at Mebiol’s office (in top photo, with founder Professor Mori), is only 10 cm thick, and the plants can survive for up to 10 days without water in the Japanese summer heat.

Below is a diagram explaining Hymec.

Mebiol's Hymec farm system

Statistics on World Urban Population

UNFPA logo

According to the United Nations Population Fund, in 2008 the world achieved an urbanization milestone, 3.3 billion people, more than half the world’s peoples, now lived in cities.

By 2030, 5 billion people will be city dwellers, and more than 81% will be in developing countries. From 2000 to 2030, in one generation the urban populations of Asia and Africa will double (from 1.7 to 3.4 billion).

The pace of urbanization is astonishing. From 1900 to 2000, the number of city dwellers rose from 220 million to 2.8 billion, an increase of more than 10 times. Poverty and sustainability are the two biggest challenges of our century’s global urbanization, with implications for transportation, water and energy supplies.

The role of gardeners in retrofitting mature cities and building emerging cities is vital in promoting cities where residents are connecting to each other and the environment. I hope that Tokyo Green Space can contribute ideas for global urbanization and development.

Related posts: Peter Head’s “Entering the Ecological Age”

DPJ and the Environment

solar power

As I wrote earlier, the Democratic Party of Japan, which recently won a landslide election, is calling for major environmental changes, including significantly greater carbon emission targets than the outgoing LDP party. This week I learned that, on the premise of reviving the struggling Japanese countryside, the DPJ has also promised to reduce the gasoline tax and highway tolls. These pro-automobile ideas will not help with emissions targets.

Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, is strongly opposed to the more ambitious emission goals. By calculating the difference in today’s prices between fossil fuels and renewable energy, numbers have been created to alarm the public about costs to consumers and businesses. A particularly Japanese explanation I heard from one Japanese corporate spokesperson was articulated as concern for the finances of business customers.

This organized resistance to change strikes me as short-sighted. According to a Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs chart based on International Energy Agency data, Japan is already the world’s most energy efficient nation (calculated as energy supply per unit of GDP): three times more efficient than the global rate, twice as efficient as the US, almost twice more than the European Union, and more than seven times India and China.

In the United States, Obama has called for 25% of electric energy to come from renewable sources by 2025. The DPJ’s solar subsidies and carbon taxes will spur adoption of solar energy, benefiting Sharp and Kyocera. In a world of climate change and peak oil, investing now in renewable energy seems vital for Japan’s energy security and global technology exports.

If the focus is strictly on carbon emissions, and not renewable energy, Japan risks further dependence on nuclear energy. Already 26% of electric power in 2007, nuclear power produces dangerous waste, all the more so in a small island nation prone to earthquakes. This makes news that nuclear industry and international energy leaders are seeking to increase operating rates. From the Japan Times,

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency, urged Japan last year to relax its “hyper cautious” atomic safety standards to increase output.

The country’s operating rate averaged 59 percent in 2008, compared with 90 percent in the U.S. and 76 percent in France, according to industry group the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Inc.

With energy use increasing in the developing world, now is the time to debate the difference between carbon neutral and renewable energy, and the role of national governments in promoting change that can spur international competitive economic advantage.

japan's nuclear reactors

(from the Nuclear Fuel Transport Co, Ltd)

japan's nuclear ship transportation

japan's nuclear ship transportation

Creating a common vision for green cities

governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2009 California budget deal

Reading about the drastic budget cuts in my home state of California makes me wonder about the potential future of green cities in that state and in the United States. After months of political deadlock, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a divided state Congress agreed on $US 30 billion in cuts over two years to schools, colleges, health, welfare, prisons, recreation and other services.

A New York Times analysis quotes University of California, Berkeley professor of political science Bruce E. Cain saying, “In the end, we do not know for sure whether the California public really wants the California dream anymore. The population is too diverse to have a common vision of what it wants to provide to everyone. Some people want the old dream, some want the gated privatized version, and some would like to secede and get away from it all.”

The conventional wisdom that California or the United States has no “common vision” reflects a political and cultural deficit, and will create more long-term damage than the economic downtown. For many government and educational authorities, diversity makes a convenient excuse for an unwillingness to invest in social programs that broadly benefit the public good. Nostalgia for previous boom times obscures the massive investment and cultural change needed to create green and sustainable cities.

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China’s giant wind farms

China's giant wind farm

There’s an interesting New York Times article about China’s giant wind farms. China is using state funding, low interest loans from state-owned banks, and domestic manufacturers to create six unprecedented wind farms. The scale is mammoth: 10,000 to 20,000 megawatts each, compared with the  4,000 megawatt Texas wind farm proposed by T Boone Pickens as the world’s largest, and that is now delayed.

Apparently the United States government is upset that China is using domestic suppliers who may not have the best technologist or lowest life cycle cost. I wonder if this complaint is serious. Shouldn’t any massive government investment in renewable energy be encouraged? Given the subsidies required at this early stage, do the US trade representatives or anyone else really think China would consider US and European suppliers?

Renewable energy requires huge public investment and technological innovation. Why aren’t US, European and Japanese citizens demanding that their governments invest heavily in this new clean technology? The Chinese government is showing admirable foresight in jump-starting their clean technology industry.

A Statue of Liberty amount of waste, every hour

Terrefuge, Statue of Liberty, waste

Terrefuge, a New York City urban-eco design collaborative, has created this visual of the amount of waste produced by New York City every hour. To reach a goal of carbon negative cities, this collaborative explores future designs and urban planning that increase the production of energy, food and public health. It is an interesting mix of architects, ecologists and artists.

Government

Innovative government projects include Tokyo’s Suginami ward office building. In 2008 the municipal government in 2008 planted the world’s tallest “green curtain” to reduce carbon dioxide, lower energy costs, and demonstrate new green technology.

Suginami assembly green curtain

The green curtain covers the south wall of the main city offices, with support from a net nearly 29 meters in height, and a wall of vegetation consisting of fast-growing vines such as loofah, cucumber, gourd and morning glory. The vines are growing in small containers, with a moisture sensor that makes watering very efficient. During summer and fall, the offices are cooler by 4 degrees celsius.

This Tokyo ward-level project is an amazing demonstration of vertical urban gardening, but unfortunately little information is available online in English about this project.

UPDATE: There’s a fantastic 2010 blog about a Suginami resident creating a small green curtain. Wonderful photos document the progress, lots of information about plant types, and participation of 4 year old child. Very cool!