February 29, 2016


Villagers Use Hand-Made Canals and Their Own Money to Generate Micro-Hydropower

Keywords: Aging Society Civil Society / Local Issues Newsletter Population Decline Renewable Energy 

JFS Newsletter No.162 (February 2016)


Itoshiro is a village located in Gujo City, Gifu Prefecture, right next to Fukui Prefecture. People have been living in this district since the Jomon period (from approximately 14,000 to 3,000 years ago). Until around 1964, its population was about 1,200, but over the following 50 years it dropped to less than one fourth that, with only 250 persons in 100 households.

Itoshiro is located at an altitude of around 700 meters; thus, it is cool and comfortable in summer, but the weather is harsh in winter with several meters of snowfall. That is why villagers have long cooperated with each other to support their lives and the village. Itoshiro is also a village where Mt. Hakusan, a sacred mountain, is worshipped. From the Heian period to the Kamakura period (from around 794 to 1333) when the worship of Mt. Hakusan was particularly active, many people such as ascetic Buddhist monks, are said to have come to the village from all around Japan and settled there. Therefore, Itoshiro has traditionally been open to out-of-town people, despite being a remote village. That may be why the village's atmosphere is one in which people welcome even strangers and do not interfere with each other, which makes it a comfortable place to live for people who have settled there from other places.

In the past, no river flowed through the village, so local people grew common millet and foxtail millet in their barnyards. Then, in the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), they built a three-kilometer hand-dug canal to divert water from a river, and this enabled them to grow rice in paddies. Since then, villagers have cooperated in cleaning out the agricultural canals before flooding rice fields in spring and after harvesting rice in autumn. In this way, they have operated and maintained the canals by themselves. From the Taisho period (1912 - 1926) to 1955, there was an electric power utilization union in the village, and water wheels powered by water diverted from a valley through these canals were used to run a timber mill in the daytime and for residential electricity in the evening. When light bulbs would grow dim at night, someone in the village would go to a water wheel to clean it out, and the lights would grow brighter again. In this way, villagers have created, operated and maintained the canals by themselves, providing themselves with water for paddies and electric power.

In 2007, a non-profit organization (NPO), established by young people in their 20s from Gifu Prefecture to revitalize regional development, went from village to village in the area upstream of Gujo City to encourage villagers to launch micro-hydropower generation projects, and people in Itoshiro responded positively. The NPO promoted micro-hydropower generation based on the idea that, in the past, money circulated within each community, whereas at present money flows out because people purchase things coming from outside. One of the largest purchase items is energy. Generating electric power within communities may help restore value to farms, mountains, and villages, at the same time helping solve global environmental and energy problems. The villagers of Itoshiro decided to launch micro-hydropower generation, not because they were interested in the energy itself but because they were afraid that if the situation remained unchanged, their community would disappear.

Three water wheels for micro-hydropower generation were installed in Itoshiro in the summer of 2007, but as it turned out they were not very useful. Therefore, NPO members searched for advice and undertook independent study so as to find a more practical design. As a result, in June 2009, a spiral water turbine for run-of-river power generation was installed in a canal running beside rice paddies to generate power for a single household. The power supplies a private house that is also used as the office for a local non-profit organization called "Yasuragi-no-Sato Itoshiro (Peaceful Village Itoshiro)," standing just across the road from the water wheel. It's amazing that a head as low as only 50 centimeters allows for generation of enough power to supply a whole household.

Photo Photo

In June 2011, another water wheel was installed beside a food processing factory, which had been closed because of high electricity costs. This installation generated 2.2 kilowatts of power, taking advantage of a head of three meters. The factory restarted operation, creating a place to work for four people for 6 months a year to produce processed food items using sweet corn, a village specialty.

These locally produced food items are served at a cafe operated by local women. This cafe opens usually only on weekends, but started to offer lunch on a reservation basis on weekdays. Recently the number of people visiting the village to observe their micro-hydropower systems is increasing, but there is no place for them to have lunch. In spring, when the cafe receives lunch reservations, local women operating the cafe go to a nearby mountain together to gather edible wild plants. "If our activities only deal with energy, it will be difficult to win sympathy from the community. But if power generation can be connected to an interest of local people or something else they want to do, we can receive much more understanding and cooperation from them," said Akihide Hirano, who has been a driving force of community activities in the village. He became involved in community activities in Itoshiro in 2007 and settled in the village in 2011.

A piece of good news is that the number of people relocating from other areas is now increasing. Ten households with 25 members are incomers who have relocated from other areas to this village with its population of 250. In this year, four babies are to be born in the village. "We are having a baby boom here," smiled Hirano.

The two micro-hydropower generators presently installed in Itoshiro are not connected to a grid because the power is not for sale but for in-house consumption. Both generators were constructed by local builders/technicians, and local people well-versed in electric control systems manually developed the control panels. The keyword in Itoshiro is "Let local people do what they can do." This allows local people to fix the generators on their own in case they break down.

These two power generators are owned by the Regional Renaissance Agency (RRA), an NPO which Hirano belongs to, and managed by the Yasuragi-no-Sato Itoshiro on commission from the RRA.

Gifu Prefecture touts itself as a "Land of Clean Waters," and the prefecture is certainly blessed with rich water resources. It was in fact officials from the prefectural government who approached the community in Itoshiro about generating power with a micro-hydropower system utilizing an irrigation canal in the village. At the beginning, local people were not very enthusiastic about the project and indeed found out later that all the profit from selling power generated by these systems would go to the governments (national, prefectural and municipal) in exchange for funding 100 percent of the cost for the systems. Some local people claimed that the plan should be abolished if the systems utilizing the local canal, which local residents have maintained since the late 18th century, would not benefit the community. In the end, however, the community decided to accept the project on the condition that it would also take part in the funding so that profits would be returned to the community, although this was a risk for the community.


The result was a decision to divert the irrigation canal to make two channels and begin micro-hydropower generation at two places. One is mainly for the prefecture to provide power for 80 households. A power distribution ceremony was held on June 1, 2015.

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The other is for generating power for the Itoshiro community. The total construction cost of the power station was 240 million yen (about U.S.$2 million) and Itoshiro needs to bear 60 million yen (about U.S.$500,000), the amount after subsidies, etc. are deducted. The chairperson of the neighborhood community association and 16 other persons became promoters, held discussions for a half year as to how they should raise funds for this investment and decided to ask residents of the district for contributions. They explained the proposal to each of the one hundred households, saying, "Our community's ancestors built the irrigation canal for the sake of their descendants. For the sake of our descendants we will build a power station." As a result, almost all households decided to make a contribution and the necessary amount of money was collected. To manage the collected funds, the Irrigation Canal Agricultural Cooperative was established in April 2014.

Operation of the power stations is scheduled to start in June 2016. Although it is expected that the station will make an annual profit of approximately 20 million yen (about US$167,000) by selling electricity, this profit will be used not for dividends to the investors, but for agriculture promotion projects in the community, including training sessions on farming, support to food-processing factories and development of new products.

Operation of the power stations is scheduled to start in June 2016. Although it is expected that the station will make an annual profit of approximately 20 million yen (about US$167,000) by selling electricity, this profit will be used not for dividends to the investors, but for agriculture promotion projects in the community, including training sessions on farming, support to food-processing factories and development of new products.

Hirano said, "Micro-hydropower generation facilities using spiral water turbines, etc. are reliable as independent facilities where power is generated and used on the spot and suitable for environmental education since we can directly watch them work. However, from the viewpoint of bringing money back into local circulation, it will be necessary to generate and sell power on a larger scale in order to return profits to the region. For this reason, we decided to build a power station to generate income to support projects in the community by selling power. Having this station means we can pay management costs to clean and otherwise maintain the water canal. Cleaning the water channels stabilizes the flow, and this profits local agriculture as well as the independent micro-hydropower generation facilities. Since the Itoshiro community is rich in water and has uneven land, I believe that many independent micro-hydropower generation facilities will be built in various places."

This system in which hydropower generation station supports local projects could develop into an instructive example informing local residents elsewhere who wish to club together to start micro-hydropower generation using water canals that have been maintained over the years to generate profits for agricultural promotion in their region. It could also help promote independent micro-hydropower generation facilities designed to generate power for local residents' homes and workplaces. Another brilliant pattern could be launched from here!

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Written by Junko Edahiro