International Cooperation in Green Energy and Beyond

Last week I wrote about an interesting ceremony where Sake was used as a metaphor for the growing relationship among diverse parties.  That ceremony was part of a larger event recognizing the sister city partnership between Kumejima Town and Hawai’i Country and a series of workshops to investigate the future of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) at both localities.  It might seem like a simple enough thing, but there are a lot of things going on within this partnership, and just two days of talking with various participants has opened new windows into how each culture approaches resources and cooperates internationally.


Kume Island is located east of the main Okinawa Island.  The island has tall mountains, with Uegusuku being the tallest point in Okinawa.  North of the island, the ocean plunges very deep where clean, mineral rich water resides.  For the past ten years, the Kume Island Deep-sea Water Research institute has extracted this cold water as it explores uses for it.  There are now several companies utilizing the deep-sea water in a myriad of products.

Similarly, the Hawai’ian islands are located in the tropics where warm surface water sits atop cold deep water.  The American research has focused on uses of the thermal differences between the two to drive power-generating turbines, thus producing green energy.  The resulting water from the process can still be used in other ways.

A year ago, the two governments signed sister city agreements to help promote educational and cultural ties.  There have also been three workshops on Ocean Energy, two in the States, and one in Japan.

The Partnership

What makes this partnership so exciting to everyone involved is that they compliment each other so well.  Kume Island uses the water in a myriad ways, but has no power plant.  Hawai’i has a power plant, but has not fully utilized the water after the fact.  While these reasons might be enough, there are far more that highlight the importance of cross-cultural communication and cooperation.

For Kume Island, a place of mostly agricultural industry, it is important to create new jobs so that young people have a place to return after going to college or after leaving high school.  Many small islands in Okinawa face a severely declining population as young people leave for school but find no jobs to return to.  Farms can only be given to one child, and the large geriatric population of Japan means that even this is often not an option.

There is also the increased interest in clean energy after the March 11 Daiichi meltdown.  Kume Island has its own gas-powered energy plants, but the world is looking for new ways to power the future.  With Okinawa as a prime place for OTEC due to the high difference in surface and bottom temperatures, Kumejima could place itself as a leader in green energy while also providing new construction, power, and subsidiary jobs.

For the American side, Hawai’i is mostly dependent on tourism, which has fallen along with the slide in the world economy.  Hawai’i too needs to find new ways to employ its young and to better utilize its many natural resources.  Kume Island has long studied the use of the deep water in everything from food to farming to cosmetics to even bathing.  The chance to help build the power plant also provides US companies like Lockheed Martin, which also attended the workshop, important contracts that will help the wider US economy.  Working together provides unique opportunities for both.

Towards the Future

With the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai’i Authority’s expertise in pioneering OTEC power, and Kume Island’s expertise in the use of mineral rich deep-sea water, both localities have a lot to learn from each other.  More than the simple economic benefits the two countries will gain from working together, the sister city partnership allows for people and thus ideas to pass more smoothly between the two cultures.  The sister city connection in particular opens the door for student exchanges which can help provide opportunities for closer understanding.

Friendly ties lead to greater understanding, new ideas, and greater prosperity for both.  Later this week, I’ll share some of the amazing and efficient things Kume Island does with the natural resource of deep-sea water.