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  • Image Credit: AOL
  • Image Credit: AOL
  • Image Credit: AOL
  • Image Credit: AOL
A visit to Ecoful Town in Toyota City, Japan is misleading; checking out the exhibits on the three-acre parcel in the center of Aichi Prefecture makes one think he's learning what kinds of lives homeowners and citizens might experience in some future city not that different from our own. But Ecoful Town is more than a demonstration of what's possible – it's an overview of what's happening right now with the intention of making the future better, and it's happening all over Toyota City.

"It is possible to live normal lives with cleaner forms of energy."

The citywide project is a comprehensive study of how to create a low-carbon society, as well as a study of what a low-carbon society would even look like. It is also, hopefully, a demonstration to the 422,787 residents that – as the mayor of Toyota City said – "it is possible to live normal lives with cleaner forms of energy." On a recent visit we were able to see what it looks like when Big Data meets alternative energy and the quest for small carbon footprints.
In 2009, Toyota City was selected by the Japanese government to be a model city for the environment, which means it had set high targets for carbon reduction and developed solutions to counter global warming. The government anointing probably had something to do with the fact that from 1990 to 2010, Toyota City had lowered its CO2 footprint by more than nine percent, and the designation quickly snowballed into a lump of initiatives, aims and appellations.



In 2010, the national government chose Toyota City as one of four places in the country that would prove "next-generation energy and social living systems." That put civic government into collaboration with universities, private enterprise and other groups on the development and study of a "Japanese-style smart grid" intended to be adapted for use – read, commercialization – overseas.

In 2011, the city was further designated a Special General Local Revitalization Area and a Next-Generation Energy Mobility Creation Zone to "promote environmental and energy solutions." What's that mean? It meant the city could take advantage of eased regulations and monetary support in various forms such as tax breaks and subsidies for buying plug-in hybrid vehicles, charging stations, residential solar panels and storage batteries.

The city is actually targeting a 70-percent CO2 emissions reduction by 2050

In spite of the repeated and verbose action plans and civic knightings, the aim remained the same: by focusing on a technology cluster in the city center, transportation in the form of a low-carbon transport system, local industry, forestry (70 percent of Aichi Prefecture is forest) and encouraging environmental lifestyles via household energy consumption and employing alternate sources of energy, the city wanted to reduce its CO2 footprint by at least 30 percent by 2030 and by at least 50 percent by 2050. And those are only the minimum standards: the city is actually targeting a 50-percent reduction by 2030 and a 70-percent reduction by 2050 compared to 2011.



That brings us to two last project names, Toyota City Low Carbon Society Verification Project and "Eco-Model City" Project Action Plan, and the union of Toyota companies and Toyota City. Ecoful Town opened in May, 2012, the combined effort of the city and 35 private businesses and public organizations, to showcase the tiny model city being used to study energy creation and consumption. Its most obvious nods to green living in public spaces are the moss-covered main pavilion, the parking lots made with water-retaining asphalt and grass parking spaces, the Smart Mobility Station for Toyota's Ha:mo carsharing service, a hydrogen fueling station and a restaurant built with local timber and serving food prepared with local produce.

The marquee attraction, though, is the model house built by Toyota Home, a division of the Toyota Group. That tiny model city mentioned earlier is composed of 67 "Smart Houses" – all built by Toyota Home – constructed in two parts of Toyota City, and the model home explains how they work as part of the low carbon verification project.



In return for agreeing to be studied, homeowners are provided with a plug-in hybrid vehicle and free insurance.

Anyone can purchase one of the homes in the model city as long as they agree to be part of the project. We were told that each house is about 60 tsubo – roughly 2,132 square feet – and costs 50 million yen ($512,000 US) before the cost of the land is factored in. Every one of the homes is fitted with a solar power generation system, a hybrid home-charging station, an energy storage battery and a Home Energy Management System (HEMS). The model home, like half of the 67 total homes, has an 8.4-kWh lead-acid battery, the other half use lithium-ion batteries, and ten of the homes have 10-kWh batteries. In return for agreeing to be studied, homeowners are provided with a plug-in hybrid vehicle and free insurance.

There's even a space for hydrogen in the energy matrix, lending its atomic weight to the town's nickname: "Hybrid City." Beyond the hydrogen fueling station in Ecoful Town, the HyGrid Study Group is studying the use of an energy supply grid that includes hydrogen as a secondary energy, and the use of excess renewable energy to electrolyze water into hydrogen and store it for use in fuel cells.

Toyota Motor fits in because it wants to examine how automobiles can be an active part of the overall energy grid, both consuming and contributing. The battery in a hybrid – and eventually, perhaps the fuel cell – can be discharged to provide power to the home. That only applies to using the charge from the battery without the engine being involved, though; if the engine is used then the car is reclassified as a generator and that involves different regulations.



The HEMS installed in each house is the brain of the operation. It measures the intake and usage of every energy-gathering and energy-consuming item in or attached to the house – rooms and fixtures, cars plugged into the charging station, the solar panels and the household storage battery, everything – and displays real-time flow on a monitor in the living room. A dedicated appliance controller does the same for just the items plugged into sockets, and relays that info to the HEMS. Additionally, the HEMS can provide reports of power usage for each room and time period and display those against the dynamic pricing from grid usage. Homeowners can also program HEMS to direct energy to certain places at certain times, such as drawing energy from the hybrid battery overnight or pre-conditioning the car from the grid at a certain time in the morning.

Each home has an electronic picture frame that displays excessive (red), average (yellow), or below average (blue) energy consumption

All of the information gathered by the HEMS is then sent to the Energy Data Management Service, a data analysis center which is like a HEMS for the entire community, measuring the overall movement and flow among all 67 homes. A home's place in the scheme of overall energy usage is then relayed to another fixture installed in all of the homes: an electronic picture frame that glows a certain color to denote excessive (red), average (yellow), or below average (blue) consumption. The interior of the frame can operate as another HEMS display or it can show off something a little more friendly, like family photos.

Energy usage is measured in 30-minute increments for in order to award "eco points," which are given when a home remains under a certain consumption threshold. The eco points can be redeemed to pay for one's electricity bill or for commercial goods at participating businesses. And yes, residents can also find out where they rank among the community of 67 homes in case they're into eco-shaming or they just want to pat themselves on their super-competitive backs.



Although the three-year project is officially scheduled to end in May 2015, it is expected to continue, especially with two big milestones coming up next year: the collection of two years of data in order to begin constructing a holistic grid for commercialization, and the building of a green space next to the current Ecoful Town that will include a "hilly and mountainous smart community zone" and a "mountainous nature experience zone." Since 2015 is also the year when Toyota's fuel cell vehicle is expected to arrive, the company will naturally be interested in injecting that into the equation.

Whatever future grid results and is deemed feasible for export, the aim is to take it to other Japanese cities and Europe, as well as emerging economies whose focus on growth might not match their focus on infrastructure.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 21 Comments
      CoolWaters
      • 1 Year Ago
      Japan needs to EXPORT these kind of housing developments to the US as well. US Builders only build ugly energy wasting, architect missing, Mcmansions.
        Spec
        • 1 Year Ago
        @CoolWaters
        Yeah, with modern material ands design techniques, it is amazing that we still build such energy-wasting stupid buildings. With simple things like proper orientation, good insulation, good windows, passive solar, awnings, etc. it is possible to build homes that use very little energy. Throw some PV panels on the roof and the buildings can produce near as much (or more) energy than they consume.
        Ryan
        • 1 Year Ago
        @CoolWaters
        Part of the problem with new home construction is they make you pay for the crappy inefficient stuff, and then you have to work hard and replace it with the better stuff. It would be cheaper and easier if they just made it right the first time, even if it was just cheaper in the long run. My house is high tech, green, and modern, yet I would do a lot of different things if I had a blank sheet in front of me.
        Warren
        • 1 Year Ago
        @CoolWaters
        This stuff was being done here 40 years ago. They need to export better citizens to the US!
      Wm
      • 1 Year Ago
      It looks like a better place to visit than Detroit.
      Marcopolo
      • 1 Year Ago
      Building Eco-type developments in Western nations (especially English speaking) is financially very difficult. Although everyone loves the idea of an environmentally friendly efficient house, not that many will actually buy a home in such a development. Most eco-developments begin with optimistic enthusiasm, then either never get built, or become conventional housing developments, with a bit of green washing. Some of the problem is the highly individualistic nature of Western culture, also because new home buyers are looking for more space for growing families. In addition most, "environmentally aware" people, want to live in a home, and neighbourhood with 'character'. Housing projects like this, need standardisation of materials, fittings and features. In the West, such standardisation is associated with "affordable" project housing, and lacking in individual character. The sort of buyer who would appreciate these features, either wants to live in a converted warehouse, or can afford to build a house incorporating such features in an existing setting. In 1969 during a trip to the US to commission a special set of ceramic bells for a Carillon, (and to attend Woodstock) I had the privilege of meeting the late architect Paolo Soleri, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paolo_Soleri ]. I discovered that Paolo was also not only a visionary architect, and expert in bell-founding but a fellow admirer of the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ. We kept in communication over the years, and I always tried to visit Paolo, and "Arcosanti ", whenever I was in the US. I remained fascinated by his concept of "Arcology", ( architecture coherent with ecology ), and although I didn't think all his idea's were practical, no one who is interested in 'eco' style living would be disappointed by taking a vacation trip to "Arcosanti " and "Cosanti" in Arizona. ( Just within the range of a Leaf, easily within the range of Tesla :) .
      Ryan
      • 1 Year Ago
      There are a few places like that in the US, but this is what the eco groups should be doing. Organize supporters into new developments like this that are very well designed and don't need to use gas heating, AC, or coal power.
      Warren
      • 1 Year Ago
      Interesting that folks seem to think Japan has more efficient housing than the US. When we were there, 8 years ago, they saved energy by living in very small spaces, and not heating or air conditioning much, both good ideas. But the actual buildings were uninsulated, and had single pane windows! Freezing in the winter, and sweating in the summer was thought to build character.
      CoolWaters
      • 1 Year Ago
      Come to think of it, European Window manufacturers also need to EXPORT Windows to the US, as we have the Worst Windows in the world.
        SealtestDark
        • 1 Year Ago
        @CoolWaters
        The selection of windows is also better outside of North America. I just went to a home show a few weeks ago and every window manufacturer was trying to sell me single hung or casement windows with a simple crank. As Paul said they were almost never triple pane. Nobody had the more complex hinges that let me open the window like a door or tilt it into the house. None of the sales people believed such a design was possible. If I want it I will have to search carefully and possibly just budget for a trip to Germany and import.
          SealtestDark
          • 1 Year Ago
          @SealtestDark
          @Warren in my case it is also about the functionality that I want. Besides I have used several European airports, but I have never stopped to look around. I would love to see the countries I have changed planes in. Nothing is certain yet, so we'll see when I get there...
          Warren
          • 1 Year Ago
          @SealtestDark
          "If I want it I will have to search carefully and possibly just budget for a trip to Germany and import." You do realize that flying to Europe and back will raise your CO2 footprint more than the best windows will ever offset? In this age of globalization, and the internet, most places look like where you are now. Stay home, buy less, use less energy, talk among yourselves on the internet.
        paulwesterberg
        • 1 Year Ago
        @CoolWaters
        Tripple pane windows are common in Europe, rare in the US.
      Koenigsegg
      • 1 Year Ago
      all i need is a bedroom, bathroom and garage would love to live in a eco friendly house/community, preferably 1 story every car on the block electric? would be amazing, and hopefully that happens someday
      AB
      • 1 Year Ago
      My new Disney Land...
      imoore
      • 1 Year Ago
      Toyota has been building pre-fab homes in Japan for years. It's surprising they haven't attempted to enter the US market yet. I would be interested in trying this out if given the chance, but only if it came with an Alphard van.
      Captain Stu
      • 1 Year Ago
      I want to go to there.
      JS
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'd be so down to buy a house like this in the US. Small, energy efficient and modern. That's what I want. Not a POS red brick, high energy, crap hole.
      FCWT
      • 1 Year Ago
      Really impressive. The house is efficient and good looking! With much more space, the US market would not be as used to smaller houses with only the necessities installed. www.cyberrims.com
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