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FEATURE: Tsunami-hit city aims to be reborn as “mini-Denmark” with renewables

In a coastal city flattened by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, a project has got under way to rebuild the area as a self-sustaining community in harmony with nature, introducing know-how on renewable energies from Denmark.

The city of Higashimatsushima in Miyagi Prefecture with a population of about 40,500 was picked by the central government in December 2011 as a site for its “Future City Initiative,” which is designed to tackle environmental challenges and problems caused by the rapid aging of the nation.

As some 1,100 of its citizens perished in the tsunami and its aftermath, many of them dying of hypothermia due to the lack of energy to warm them up, the city has set the goal of achieving a 120 percent energy self-sufficiency ratio in 2026 by adopting wind, solar, biomass and other types of clean energy sources.

“The city came up with the idea of becoming energy independent after many citizens died of low body temperature despite the presence of heaters as they could not be powered due to the lack of electricity,” said Hisayuki Akahira, an executive of a body established in October 2012 to implement the project.

“Since the disaster reminded us of the fact that human beings can only live within the natural cycle, the central pillar of our project is natural providence,” said Shinji Sato, secretariat chief and project manager at the entity called Higashimatsushima Organization for Progress and E (economy, education, energy), known as HOPE.

“We will change our lifestyle to become permanently sustainable,” he said. “Now is the only chance for us” to transform the community, following the calamity.

At present, less than 1 percent of total electricity consumption is covered by renewable sources in the scenic city on the Pacific coast, whose main industries are farming and fishing. Higashimatsushima also receives state subsidies for hosting an Air Self-Defense Force base.

HOPE, which was launched by such entities as the Higashimatsushima municipal government and the city’s chamber of commerce, plays the role of coordinator among participants of the project, including academics, domestic and foreign government bodies and private companies.

Among others, Sumitomo Forestry Co., Mitsui & Co. and a consortium of eight Danish firms that specialize in areas such as renewable energy solution and architecture are involved in the initiative.

Sumitomo Forestry has been helping the city promote its forest business, while the trading house will build a solar panel plant near the coast, which is scheduled to begin operations in October 2013.

Denmark has extended financial and moral support to the city since the disaster, with Crown Prince Frederik visiting the area to encourage victims in June 2011 and 16 Higashimatsushima children invited to the European country on a homestay program in September that year.

In July 2012, the Danish municipality of Lolland, known as a front-runner in introducing renewable energies, signed an accord with Higashimatsushima to cooperate with the Japanese city for its sustainability drive. Sato and other officials of the disaster-hit city have visited Denmark to inspect advanced renewable energy technologies.

Commercial Minister Counselor Hans Peter-Kay of the Danish Embassy in Tokyo in charge of the consortium said some of the Danish enterprises are supporting the city as part of their corporate social responsibility programs and do not intend to make a profit as the scale of the project is small.

But others may be interested in “showcasing Danish products and technologies in a future city” to find future business chances in other parts of Japan, he said.

Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was premier at the time of the March 2011 disaster, and Clive Williams Nicol, a Welsh-born writer engaged in forest conservation activities, are among advisers to the organization.

HOPE now plans to implement about 30 projects in the city, including the creation of a model sustainable community for about 700 households in the area ravaged by the tsunami, with subsidies from local and central governments as well as private-sector investments.

The projects include the promotion of renewable energies, the spread of electric vehicles which can function as storage batteries, and the installment of wooden buildings that can be used as fuels for biomass power generation in the event of disasters to secure energy.

To create jobs and boost the regional economy in the city, where more than 20 percent of citizens are aged 65 or older, HOPE will encourage citizens including the elderly to grow weeds and straw that can be used as fuel for biomass power generation and work in the eco-tourism industry, Sato said.

HOPE plans to organize programs to allow visitors to explore forests in the city and deploy horses to carry timber from forest thinning as a low-carbon transportation means.
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