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Experimental Housing Warmed by Solar Success


KITA-KYUSHU--An air-conditioning sales company in Kita-Kyushu is basking in the sun this year after winning the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's top prize for new energy-saving ideas. The firm earned its accolade for constructing the nation's first rental apartment building whose units all use solar-generated electricity.

It doesn't cost any extra for the tenants to tap into solar power, and in most cases, it has brought their electricity bill down to less than 1,000 yen a month--a far cry from the 15,000 yen that is typical for many households.

The company, Shibaura Group, plans to build two similar buildings next year in Kita-Kyushu and at Tachiarai, Fukuoka Prefecture. In 2007, it will add the city of Fukuoka to its eco-friendly locations. The air conditioning installation company, founded in 1977, has its headquarters in Kita-Kyushu's Kokura-Minami Ward. After switching from selling electrical equipment to installing air conditioning several years ago, it added solar-power panels to its offerings in 2002. President Tetsumi Shinchi, 52, was eager to spread the word on solar power. He tried to convince developers to incorporate solar panels in new apartment buildings, to little avail. Companies assured him they could not make a profit if they did so. So he decided it was up to him, and he constructed his own model building. He borrowed 600 million yen--double his company's annual sales--and this February raised a six-story apartment building dubbed New Gaea on a site near the Shibaura Group headquarters.

The housing block has 43 units, some with two bedrooms and others with three. The monthly rent ranges from 68,000 yen to 85,000 yen. On the roof, 430 power-generating solar panels are lined up, 10 for each unit. The panels generate enough juice to run the elevators and hall lighting. All the residents signed contracts to allow the sale of any extra electricity produced to an outside power company.

The units were all rented out before the building was built, and there is a waiting list of people eager to move in. The average electricity bill in the first month, minus dividends paid by the power company, was about 3,000 yen per unit. When the tenants moved in, Shinchi advised them that they would save more by taking advantage of lower nighttime rates from the power company. "Use your washing machine after 10 p.m.," he advised, adding that it would be "cheaper to cook rice before 8 a.m." Soon the average bill per unit fell to 924 yen, with 10 units making a profit from the sale of their solar power. One homemaker, 40, who lives with her husband and son, was surprised in May to see about 3,000 yen transferred to her bank account from Kyushu Electric Power Co. "Is it really OK to receive this?" she wondered. In other places they have lived, her family's monthly electricity bill had topped out at around 15,000 yen. Now, in some months they only pay 1,000 yen. It is now her husband's daily habit to check their electricity use.

Shinchi regards his tenants as "joint researchers." When he interviewed prospective tenants, he told them "this is an experimental building." He had them sign proxy letters to permit the data on their electricity use and generation to be shared with outside researchers.

The ceremony for this year's new energy prizes, sponsored by the New Energy Foundation in conjunction with the industry ministry, took place in Tokyo in October. The concept, described as "a new business model," brings benefits for both the owner, whose building is guaranteed a high occupancy rate, and the tenants, who save money on energy costs. The sponsors also lauded the project as a new path to encourage wider use of solar energy.

The future is looking bright for the Shibaura Group, which now has 40 employees, with one subsidiary. In November, the firm spun off its real estate section into a separate concern.

"The sun represents unlimited energy. We have achieved something to the benefit of everyone. We are all delighted to receive the prize, but for our company, the future is the main thing," Shinchi said at the award ceremony.(IHT/Asahi: December 5,2005)

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