My wife, Noriko, is a Japanese citizen and a native of the Kansai Region, which lies in the southern-central region of Honshu Island. On September 11th, we flew to visit her family and friends and to check out the situation in Japan six months after the March disaster.
Although I’ve been to Noriko’s parent’s home in Takarazuka (Hyogo Prefecture) numerous times, it had never once occurred to me to ask about the source of their hot water. Sure, sometimes when taking a shower I noticed the water oscillated between hot & cold – causing me a jolt – but I figured it was because of water pressure changes or Mama-san turning on the washing machine at an inopportune time. I had no idea the source of their hot water until I asked about it on this visit and was surprised by the answer.
Mama-san told me they’ve had a solar hot water system on their roof for the past 17 years! Huh?! [Hearing this I looked at my wife and she too looked surprised, not because she didn’t know the answer, but because she realized she’d never mentioned this to me before.] Gomennasai!
I realized at that moment that Noriko’s parents, Yoshi and Yasuko Maeda, are Japanese solar pioneers. Who knew?! I asked them to tell me their story because it is rare in these parts to find residential housing with solar systems on the rooftop.
One day, seventeen years ago, a salesman came to their door selling SHW systems. He told them that for the cost of installation they’d get full pay-back in ten years time. He also told them that they’d receive a $1000 (USD) rebate for any neighbor referral that resulted in a purchase. Mama-san saw $$ signs and jumped at the opportunity, unfortunately she had over-estimated her selling skills and wasn’t able to convince her neighbors to follow her lead.
In the end, nobody they knew put a solar thermal panel on their residence. [Although I did see some solar PV in their residential neighborhood - mostly Mitsubishi panels.]
Papa-san, always the cynic, doubted the salesman’s claim from the beginning, but he looked at his monthly water heating bill and saw the pay-back as a 50/50 proposition and a hedge against inflated energy costs. Years later, he did the math and sees that purchase as “a good thing” especially as energy prices have increased.
In the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake, with Japan looking to cut nuclear energy production by a big percentage, and with alternative sources still needing to be developed, Papa-san thinks energy costs will only increase in the future. Who can argue with that logic?!
I asked Noriko’s parents what motivated them to make this purchase at a time when nobody in Japan knew anything about residential solar power. Mama-san did mention something about a concern for environmental impact and carbon reduction, but they assured me this decison wasn’t based on environmental concerns, it was simple economics and it made sense at the time. They have a south-facing roofline and a great solar resource much of the year. Keep in mind that these are the same people that recently updated their heating systems and installed floor radiant heating in the most-used part of their home. They are energy efficient!
I’m told the average monthly electricity bill of a common household is about 8,000 yen (approx $105 USD by today’s exchange rate.) I didn’t see their electric bill, but Papa-san told me their natural gas cost in the winter is approx $130 (USD) per month on average. This covers the cost for the majority of hot water heating and for floor and wall heaters. [He said they do get some SHW from their solar panel even during the winter.] For six months their monthly bill is reduced by 80%, this is because of the solar, he explained.
Looking throughout their neighborhood, along the silver-gray rooflines that are uniquely Japanese, I didn’t see another solar thermal panel in that affluent neighborhood. We did see a couple during our travels to Kobe, but nothing like what I witnessed in China or even in Southern California.
When asked if they’d make that same decision today, Papa-san laughed and said, “No, not at our age … we’d never get the payback on our investment in our lifetime.” [Papa is 77 years old!] Mama-san told me later, when nobody else was around, that she wouldmake the same decision again because of her experience and because she feels it is the right thing to do.
Hey, I gotta stop writing and get this posted as Mama-san just told me that a major typhoon is coming our way. Later on!
To be continued …