Share the sun

Tokyo Shimbun

Everyday we read about advances being made in the field of renewable energy, in terms of both technology and commercial viability, so much so that it is seriously disappointing to also read that so many people in the developed world still rely heavily on fossil fuels, not to mention nuclear power, whose increasing acceptance as a solution to global warming by parties that used to dismiss it demands more scrutiny. The gripes against renewables remain much the same as they’ve ever been: limited access due to natural phenomena, poor infrastructure, corporate laziness and/or impacted interests. 

In the end, the problems facing renewables come down mainly to availability and their relationship to what we’ve come to call the grid. The utopian ideal for residences is for every home or apartment building to have its own solar system that would be supplemented by storage batteries or connections to the grid that itself would be powered by renewable energy sources, and a new community in Saitama Prefecture has come about as close to this ideal as we’ve yet seen in Japan.

An article in the Nov. 26 Tokyo Shimbun describes an experimental community in Midori Ward, Saitama City, which is being managed by the “new” energy company Looop. At present, the housing development contains 51 tightly packed single-family homes, each with its own rooftop solar system connected to a grid that serves only this community. The first thing that struck me upon reading the article was that Looop sees it as a profit-making endeavor. The residents do not get free electricity the way many homeowners with unique solar systems do. They pay Looop for the energy they need.

Consequently, the advantage, at least economically, isn’t immediately apparent, so Tokyo Shimbun gives an example of how one household uses the system. A 35-year-old man, husband and father, gets up in the morning and takes his three kids to daycare and school. He then returns home and rinses the breakfast dishes, after which he asks the AI service Alexa to boot up the special tablet and access the power table, which predicts, based on weather forecasts, the day’s solar energy collection potential and displays the resulting usage in units of ¥5 per hour. The minimum cost of the electricity is ¥20 for 1 kw/hour. He then consults the graph to decide when is the best time to run the dishwasher, the appliance that uses the most energy. 

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Make Mine Maglev (4)

Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu predicts the Chuo Shinkansen won’t be ready by 2027. (TBS)

Our ongoing coverage of the Chuo Shinkansen, vernacularly known as the “linear motor car,” and usually referred to in English as the “maglev project,” continues apace even if construction itself doesn’t. This week, we found three distinct media stories about the maglev, and while they can be related to one another due to the way they describe obstacles toward completion of the Tokyo-to-Nagoya leg of the railway, they deserve to be addressed separately.

The first story, reported by the Mainichi Shimbun on Nov. 12, takes place in the town of Mitake in Gifu Prefecture. In 2016, two areas within the town had been selected as candidate landfill sites for receiving excavated soil and rock resulting from maglev tunnel construction. However, any formal announcement about the selection had been postponed after problems arose about the “impact” of the decision. Apparently, a portion of the candidate sites included a wetlands area that has been recognized by the environmental ministry as a vital habitat for a rare species of flora. Such designations do not automatically prohibit “development activities,” but those who carry out the operations regarding development are “required” to consider conservation efforts to protect precious resources. JR Tokai, the company building the maglev, has said it would transplant any rare species of plant in the area. 

On Nov. 10, Mitake held its fourth public forum with “experts” and representatives of JR Tokai. Residents expressed alarm, since it was the first time they were alerted to the fact that the landfill project would contaminate a valuable wetlands area, a fact that was actually revealed by reporter Hiroaki Izawa in a scoop for the weekly magazine Sunday Mainichi after he confirmed the environmental ministry’s designation of the rare species. Afterwards, the town’s mayor tried to explain why no announcement had been made previously, even though the environmental ministry’s designation had also been made in 2016. He said that he wasn’t sure what JR Tokai was planning to do at the time and so put off the announcement. After the company pledged to transplant the endangered plant species he became more positive about the landfill project. 

Though the environmental ministry applauded the dialogue between Mitake and JR Tokai, they didn’t address another problem, which was pointed out by a different media outlet, namely that the excavated soil and rock would contain natural heavy metals, which are toxic to living things, including humans. Consequently, the soil would have to be extensively processed before being dumped into the landfill. 

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Planned Obsolescence

Variable interest housing loan campaign from early 2020

With constant talk of a looming worldwide recession, economic news tends to be gloomy, and each country has its own particular problems. Some financial commentators say that Japan’s interest rates remain ridiculously low compared to elsewhere, but no one seems to see it as an issue to fret about. A Nihon Keizai Shimbun article that appeared Nov. 6 tries to examine the matter as it relates to Japan’s overall financial health and the prognosis is not good.

However, the reason for Nikkei’s pessimism is rooted in a larger problem where interest rates play a part: Japan’s over-supply of housing. This blog has covered this topic every which way since it launched in 2009, and none of the conclusions reached by Nikkei are particularly fresh, but as Japan’s population continues to shrink and age they are more relevant than ever and bear repeating.

The main concern of the article is variable interest loans, which account for more than 70 percent of all mortgages in Japan. Variable interest means that the lender has the discretion of changing the interest rate during the period that the borrower pays back the loan, meaning it could go up or down at a designated time. The reason most people take out variable interest loans is that they charge lower rates in the beginning than fixed interest loans do. In Japan, housing loan interest rates are still absurdly low compared to the rest of the developed world. The lowest we could find right now is the 0.289 percent charged by au Jibun Bank, followed by Mizuho’s 0.375-0.675 percent. When people take out variable interest loans starting at these rates, they likely think that even if they go up, it won’t make that much of a difference, but actually it does. According to MFS, a service company that helps customers compare housing loan rates and conditions, a 0.1 point increase in the interest rate would lead to an increase of ¥110 billion in interest debt throughout Japan. In simpler terms, if your variable interest rate rises from 0.5 percent to 1.0 percent, your interest payments will double. 

Such an increase wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the asset value of the home being financed remained the same or went up, but in Japan, as we’ve said here many times, that isn’t the case. Conventional wisdom says that if your mortgage becomes too much to handle you can refinance the loan using your home as collateral, or sell the house, pay off the loan, and then buy something cheaper with the money left over. But in Japan, depending on how old the house is, it may be difficult to sell it for the amount needed to pay off a loan, which means the owner is at risk of going bankrupt if their personal financial situation changes for the worse due to loss of income, sudden severe illness, or whatever.

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