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Posted Oct 31st 2013 11:57AM

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.