Faced with a steadily shrinking population a decade ago, Toyama dusted off and spruced up some old technologies like streetcars, waterwheels and hot water, and is using them in clever ways to encourage people to stay. The strategy is working. Whereas Japan’s 126-million population decreased by 0.21% in 2014, and the population in Toyama Prefecture fell by 0.56%.
“We have been able to bring people back to the city to offset the decreasing birth-to-death ratio, and this has lowered the population decrease in the city to 0.16 percent,” says Toyama City Mayor Masashi Mori. The success of Toyama’s eco-techno approach to urban development caught the eye of the central government, which chose the city to host the G7 Environmental Ministers’ meeting set for this summer. The ministers of Western Europe, the U.S. and Canada will get to visit a scenic, innovative town located in the middle of Japan facing the Japan Sea and with the Japan Northern Alps creating a magnificent vista in the rear. To take advantage of the rivers flowing down from these mountains, the city is encouraging farming groups to use micro hydroelectric power stations. Two such miniature stations have been built with more to come.
The one that was visited can generate some 30 kilowatts—enough to provide the equivalent of 45 households with electricity for a year. Uniquely, the waterwheel, or turbine as it’s called today, can be raised or lowered for maintenance, or in emergencies such as when the river runs wild. This feature makes for a compact design and lowers construction costs because it eliminates the need to build a river bypass for when the turbine requires maintenance—as is the case with fixed turbines. Also, the gate controlling the vertical drop in river flow (“head” in technical terms) that pressures the turbine to turn is automatically adjusted to maintain a steady flow—whether the river is running fast or slow—for efficient power generation. Suikikogyo K.K., the company that designed and built the system, has patents pending on both these clever control features.