Yusuhara: the eco-friendly traditional mountain town

In these days of environmental concerns, it’s not unusual to hear talk of green living and energy independence.  In the Shikoku mountain town of Yusuhara, it’s more than just talk.  This town of less than 4,000 people has adopted various practices to generate its own power and reduce its carbon footprint while caring for the forests that make up 90% of the area within the town’s borders.  The town currently generates about 70% of its own power, and hopes to increase that over time.

One particularly interesting feature of Yusuhara’s energy production efforts is its diversity.  The town doesn’t rely on any one energy source, but draws from several.

These days installation of solar panels has become widespread and Yusuhara is no different.  Many private homes are topped with solar panels, as are all public buildings, even Yusuhara’s famous historic wooden theatre.  Marche Yusuhara, a community-operated hotel and local products shop in the heart of the town generates all its own power from solar panels on its roof. (It also has an electric car charging station out front.) 

As is also becoming common across Japan, some fields that are no longer being cultivated due to a lack of farmers have been turned into fields of solar panels. Because the town center is on the floor of a rather deep valley, the amount of time when direct sunlight feeds the solar panels is perhaps more limited than it might be in other areas, but it is still a viable energy source.  

Additionally, there are a number of windmills gracing ridgetops and plateaus where winds can be relied on to turn them.  The windmills on the karst plateau about 10 kilometers north of the town center are especially effective. There is even a windmill on the road leading into the town.

Like many mountainous areas, Yusuhara has no shortage of water.  This, too, has been harnessed by a mini hydro-power plant on the Yusuhara River.  The diversion of the water into the power plant also plays a role in preventing flooding that was once a problem.  The energy created by this little power plant powers the local school and even the town’s street lights.

As mentioned above, 90% of the area within Yusuhara’s borders is forest, much of it on steep mountainsides.  These days, commercial logging tends to be clear-cutting of man-made tree farms.  Natural growth forests, full of bio-diversity, are often left to grow as they will. This means that when a branch breaks off, or a tree topples in a storm it is considered “junk” and usually gets left where it falls.  Of course eventually the tree will rot away and feed the soil on the forest floor, but this doesn’t necessarily produce the best result for the forest.

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It is well understood in Japan that in order for a forest to thrive, human intervention in the form of occasional culling is important.  In the past, professional foresters would cull out a tree here and a tree there and bring them off the mountain to use to produce building materials and other wooden items.  In mountainous areas like Yusuhara, people often cut trees to use for firewood to heat their homes as well. Recent research shows that the CO2 absorption of a forest is actually improved by strategic thinning of the trees.  The foresters of Yusuhara have launched a more pro-active program to thin the forest to this end.  They have also found a good use for the culled trees.

In an enviably successful public-private partnership that could serve as a poster child for ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing, the town of Yusuhara, the local foresters’ union and private industry have also entered into a joint enterprise to “recycle” culled trees and those junk trees that have fallen in the forests into useable wood pellets.

A small plant has been set up next to the local timber milling plant.  Trees that cannot be used for timber are brought here and ground down to a sawdust-like consistency.

They are then put through a process that compresses them into small hard pellets.

In the final step, the pellets are dumped into massive bags for shipping to a distribution center.  It takes about one hour of production to fill one 650 kilogram (approx. 1,400 pound) bag.

While burning the pellets has the same energy efficiency as burning unprocessed logs, the pellets apparently put off a more consistent heat as they burn.  They also have the advantage of being easier to package, ship and store.  And, of course, they are made using wood that would otherwise just be left to rot. 

In Yusuhara, many families heat their homes using these wood pellets.  Even the dormitory of the local school is heated with wood pellets.

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In the final touch of “wood biomass circulation”, the ash that is left from burning the wood pellets is collected and used to fertilize fields or returned to the forest floor.  There can be no arguing with the green impact.

Like many public-private partnership projects, the profit of this endeavor is measured not just by the bottom line, but also by its contribution to the community through job creation (and the money that injects into the local economy) and positive environmental impact.

In many ways, Yusuhara is showing itself to be extremely forward thinking with its environmentally-friendly practices.  Yet, on reflection, many of its practices are just the kind of common sense that traditional communities have exercised to live at one with nature for centuries.  The world needs more practical combination of traditional practices with modern, eco-friendly technology.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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