This December, I had the pleasure of attending Eco-Products Exhibition (Eco-Pro) 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. Though not well known outside of Asia, Eco-Pro is the largest event of its kind in this part of the world. In its 15th year, 185, 000 visitors attended this years event with 711 participants showcasing their environment-oriented products, services, and technologies. Though a majority of them are well-known big companies, mid- or small-size enterprises (SMEs), NGOs, and universities had a large presence as well.
Every year, Eco-Pro features a particular theme. With the recovery of Fukushima on everyone’s mind and the uncertainty in fossil fuel supply, the focus on 2013 was on renewable energy. In July 2012, the government of Japan introduced a feed-in tariff (FIT) to promote energy generation from renewable resources including solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. As a result, the application for the development of renewable energy reached 13 GW (million kW) in February 2013, only six months after the introduction of the FIT scheme. For investors in these projects, this policy guarantees 100% purchase of all power at a fixed price for electricity generated by solar PV systems larger than 10kW.
In spite of this monumental achievement, only about 10% is actually generating power. Japan still gets less than 2% of its energy from renewable sources (excluding hydropower).
The key to integration of renewable energy sources, which are highly intermittent, is it the deployment of energy storage systems to store energy when it is not needed and release it when demand is higher.
As one of the largest solar PV panel maker in the world, Kyocera is also operating a utility scale solar plant (so-called mega-solar projects) with a rating of 70 MW, enough to power 22,000 households in Kyushu. To store the excess energy produced during the daytime, the company has developed 14.4kWh lithium ion batteries at the household level. The capacity is sufficient to operate a refrigerator and TV simultaneously for 24 hours during power outages. While these units cost $24,000, smaller batteries from Panasonic can be purchased for as low as $9000.
The interface between renewable energy generators and the grid or battery system is an area of technology that is undergoing rapid innovation and is one of the barriers to deploying widespread renewable energy systems. In Japan, NEC has developed inverters that requires no power conditioning. That means direct current from a solar panel can go directly into a battery without being converted into alternating current (AC), which is how electricity is generally transmitted on a grid. This eliminates power loss and boosts overall efficiency.
While the technologies demonstrated here are inspiring, the institutional aspects of solar projects was also highlighted at this year’s Eco-Pro. Developing the market conditions to properly manage solar projects remains a big challenge. In Japan, mega-solar projects are typically profit-driven rather than as CSR. There is a concern that after the 20-year FIT period is over and the initial costs have been paid off, the operators may lose interest in maintaining these facilities, which would be a detriment to the local community it serves.
Nevertheless, these projects can contribute to the well-being of society if managed appropriately. For example, in Inami town in Wakayama prefecture, the local government is working with private businesses and its university to develop their solar project. This is the first public-private partnership of its kind of Japan and is operated by Plus Social. The company will take in the revenues under this scheme while supporting local activities in Wakayama prefecture and Kyoto. At the same time, Ryukoku University will play an important role in educating the public in Inami town.
Innovations in Vehicles
Another major area of innovation for the environment is in cars and other vehicles in the transportation sector. Complementing the integration of renewable energy are electric vehicles that could not only use emission-free electricity from the sun or wind, they can act at storage mediums to accommodate the variable nature of these sources on the grid. Below are three automotive technologies featured at this year’s Eco-Pro. They demonstrate new innovations that not only use less energy, but also reduce pollution.
Toyota’s Prius has set the standard for hybrid vehicles with not only domestic sales but also a formidable international market. At this Eco-Pro, they showcased the new Prius HPV, which can be wirelessly charged when parked. By parking properly over a power source, the vehicle is charged by a system consisting of an on-board charging unit, a wireless communication control, and a secondary coil. It relies on resonance between the oscillating magnetic field between the two coils so that power can be transmitted to charge an exhausted battery. With the 4.4kWh lithium-ion battery pack, the car can be charged in 90 minutes.
As one of the world’s largest producer or tires for vehicles, Bridgestone has begun development of next generation Air Free (non-pneumatic) tire. Today’s conventional tires requires an inner tube. Although their durability and use have improved substantial since vehicles first came on the road, their disposal has been problematic. Often they are left in landfills where the results could be toxic if they catch on tire. On the other hand, Bridgestone’s new concept tires have no inner tube or metal components inside.
With a unique structure of spokes stretching along the inner sides of the tires supporting the weight of the vehicle, there is no need to periodically refill the tires with air, meaning that the tires require less maintenance. At the same the worry of punctures is eliminated. The spoke structure within the tire is made from reusable thermoplastic resin, and along with the rubber in the tread portion, the materials used in the tires are 100 percent recyclable.
While the R&D and have only been going on a couple years, the company expects to commercialize them in a few years. They will first appear on light vehicles and those that travel short distances in the city.
As companies around the world are now touting their efforts to improve the energy efficiency of their products but also in their production process, the car industry is not standing still.
Car companies have poured enormous investments in building vehicles with better mileage but some are also developing new technologies to lower the energy consumption during the production process.
Mazda demonstrated their superlight aluminum engine, but they also showed how the manufacturing could be improved. It turns out that the most energy intensive part of automobile production is not the assembly itself, but the painting process. That’s because it consists of multiple coats of paint that have to be baked. By applying a new process, Mazda has been able to paint their cars with fewer steps, less volatile chemicals, and less energy in the coating process.