What The Northwest Could Learn From Japan's Eco-Friendly 'Smart Homes'
Recovering from a big earthquake and tsunami has lead Japan to invest in new communities called "smart cities" with interconnected electric cars, solar panels and advanced energy-saving technology.
They're eco-friendly, and they're also better prepared for when the next big one hits because they're filled with "smart homes" that supply their own power when disaster strikes.
There's nothing quite like these "smart homes" in the Pacific Northwest, but Hillsboro resident Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield rigged up a DIY version for her town home.
An active YouTuber and founder of the green transportation site Transport Evolved, she has two electric cars in her driveway and the tools to turn them into backup power sources for her home.
Standing in her garage, she grabs a yellow plastic box about the size of a large textbook with jumper cables attached. This inverter and its electrical outlets will turn her electric vehicle's DC power into AC power she can use in her home.
She pops the hood on her 2002 Toyota Rav 4, which has the giant letters "EV" printed on both front doors. Then, she clamps the jumper cables onto the 12-volt battery inside and turns the car on.
Now, the bigger battery in the car will recharge the smaller 12-volt battery as she draws power through devices plugged into the inverter.
Last month, she used this trick – along with a 200-foot, 12-amp extension cord – to keep her refrigerator, lights and internet working when a windstorm caused widespread power outages across the Northwest. (She subsequently posted a YouTube video entitled "How To Power Your House In An Emergency From An Electric Car.")
"When the power cut happened I was like 'Oh, I'll give it a couple hours,'" she said. "And when the power didn't come back on, I was thinking, 'I really need to save what's in the refrigerator.'"
So, she went to the hardware store and spent about $200 on the inverter and cables.
"That kept my house running for two days," she said.
A Smarter Way?
Right now, in the U.S., you need a bit of electrical know-how to pull this off – or one of the early releases of Tesla's Powerwall battery.
But in Japan, an advanced version of this back-up power system is built into the homes in places known as "smart cities." With solar panels and battery storage, these homes are built to operate off the grid during a power outage.
"They have solar, electric car connections, they have battery storage – that's pretty huge," said Mitsu Yamazaki, international business development officer for the city of Portland.
This month, Yamazaki, a Japanese native, led a trip to Japan for the economic development group Greater Portland Inc. The idea was to learn how the Northwest could follow Japan's lead in preparing for a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Together, the group toured reconstructed coastal communities featuring more resilient buildings, roads, bridges and tsunami evacuation routes.
There's a lot we can learn from from Japan when it comes to earthquake preparedness, Yamazaki said – including how to build "smart homes."
"There are so many technologies we haven't seen yet here in Oregon," he said. "Smart homes can be off-grid. There is an energy source within the home that can be dispersed to run your cars, run electricity at home for at least several days when it comes to earthquake and tsunami situations."
Building for the next big one
After Japan's earthquake and tsunami in 2011, many Japanese communities began rebuilding with the next big one in mind.
Doug Smith with the Port of Portland was one of about 50 people on this month's trip to Japan. He was particularly impressed by one of towns they toured where all the new homes and community centers had their own solar power.
"They are re-building communities consciously incorporating renewable energy into the design of the community," he said. "That eco-town we visited in Higashi-Matsushima was really reactive and innovative and something that communities especially along the coast could take advantage of."
Japan's smart homes and smart cities are also designed to conserve energy – with internet-connected thermostats, appliances and energy management systems that can reduce the amount of power a home uses on a daily basis.
Yamazaki says many of the the new technologies are both environmentally sustainable and disaster resilient. But there are reasons they haven't caught on here in the Northwest.
"People just don't know, number one," he said. "Number two, the cost of piloting and doing something new is huge because you have to import technology."
Gordon-Bloomfield says she'd love to use more of that technology in her Hillsboro town home – once it's available here. She owns a 2013 Nissan Leaf, and has been trying to get Nissan's Leaf-to-Home battery system.
"You know, one of those systems would work fantastically, and it would be a lot easier than what I've got going on now – shuffling cars backwards and forwards," she said.
It could take months to restore power after the big one hits off the West Coast, and without recharging she expects the batteries in her two cars will only last a matter of days.
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