A Japanese Town That Kicked the Oil Habit

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Courtesy of Kuzumaki

Wind turbines at Kuzumaki

Shin Abe doesn't find it odd that the picturesque little Japanese town of Kuzumaki, where he has lived all his life, generates some of its electricity with cow dung. Nor is the 15-year-old middle school student blown away by the vista of a dozen wind turbines spinning atop the forested peak of nearby Mt. Kamisodegawa. And it's old news to Abe that his school gets 25% of its power from an array of 420 solar panels located near the campus. "That's the way it's been," he shrugs. "It's natural."

To Abe, it is. But the blase teen has grown up in an alternative universe — one that might be envisioned by Al Gore. That's because Kuzumaki (population 8,000) has over the past decade transformed itself into a living laboratory for the development of sustainable and diversified energy sources. "When I was growing up, all we had [to generate power] was oil," says Kazunori Fukasawaguchi, a Kuzumaki native who now serves in local government. "I never imagined this kind of change." (Read TIME's Top 10 Green Ideas of 2008.)

In resource-poor Japan, which imports 90% of its fuel, Kuzumaki is a marvel of energy self-sufficiency. Signs of the town's comprehensive focus on environmental sustainability are visible from its mountaintops to the pens of the dairy cows that once were the bedrock of local commerce. Atop Mt. Kamisodegawa, the 12 wind turbines, each 305 feet (93 m) tall, have the capacity to convert mountain gusts into 21,000 KW of electricity — more than enough to meet the needs of the town's residents. The excess is sold to neighboring communities.

Of course, the wind doesn't always blow. At Kuzumaki Highland Farm, 200 dairy cows share the power load. Their manure is processed into fertilizer and methane gas, the latter used as fuel for an electrical generator at the town's biomass facility. Nearby, a three-year project sponsored by Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's New Energy Development Organization (NEDO) uses wood chips from larch trees to create gas that powers the farm's milk and cheese operations. The bark of other trees is also made into pellets for heating stoves used throughout the community. A local winery, for instance, has two such stoves, and Kuzumaki pays residents up to 50,000 yen ($490) toward the cost of installing one. All told, clean energy generated 161% of Kuzumaki's electricity last year.

The force behind Kuzumaki's programs is Tetsuo Nakamura, the town's mayor from 1999 until August of last year. Nakamura, a veterinarian and farmer with the handshake of a salesman, decided nearly a decade ago that Kuzumaki could become a role model for the rest of the country by developing itself as an exemplar of environmental best practices. "It was clear to me that the environment and food would be critical issues in the 21st century," says Nakamura. So he set about working with, and getting funding from, the government, NEDO, and Tohoku Denryoku, a Japanese power generation company, on sustainable energy projects. Since passing the torch to the town's current mayor, Nakamura now promotes eco-tourism in the area. Kuzumaki hosts more than 400,000 visitors a year — up from 60,000 a decade ago — who come to the area to enjoy the scenery and gawk at what some consider to be a prototype for communities everywhere.

That future may be years away. With oil prices falling by nearly 75% over the past five months, sustainable energy is becoming less competitive economically and projects are being delayed or shelved worldwide. Besides, Kuzumaki's energy infrastructure would be difficult if not impossible to duplicate elsewhere, especially on a large scale. Investment in the town's projects — paid for by local tax revenues, private investors and the prefectural and central governments — totals $50 million. That's about $6,000 per resident, an amount that would pay the electricity bill for an average Tokyo family of four for more than seven years.

Kuzumaki's city fathers say they aren't planning any more major projects. "Right now we're thinking more of how to best utilize what we have," says Fukasawaguchi, the local official, who is responsible for issues such as forestry and the preservation of the community's population of wild bears. Additional funding could be hard to come by, since Japan has a huge budget deficit and the economy is in recession. And even though local energy use is currently rising, Kuzumaki's population is falling as the young move away and remaining residents age. Absent an economic and demographic revival, the wind turbines in years to come will be producing power for fewer and fewer citizens.

Getting into his Toyota Prius, Fukasawaguchi says that when he moved to Tokyo as a young man he didn't bother telling people where he was from because no one knew of Kuzumaki. It's different now, he says; the town is familiar to Japanese throughout the country. Whether it is ultimately recognized as a beacon pointing the way toward an oil-free energy future, or as a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided experiment, only time — and perhaps oil prices — can determine.