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Wednesday, June 20, 2001
Windmills huff, puff against nuclear powerhouses
By ERIKO ARITA
Last of two parts
White windmills gently turn in a green pasture where cows graze in Kuzumaki in the Kitakami mountains of Iwate Prefecture.
The scene is attracting tourists, who bring added revenue to the small town, which also profits from selling wind-generated electricity to a power utility.
"We have promoted green energy in an effort to revitalize the local economy," Kuzumaki Mayor Tetsuo Nakamura said, adding that the number of tourists reached 300,000 last year, about 70,000 more than before the windmills were installed.
"We are also doing our part to prevent further global warming at a time when the world is required to address environmental problems."
For the past few years, more local governments have launched renewable energy projects, hoping to boost the local economy, combat global warming and establish a sustainable society.
Among renewable energy sources like solar power, biomass and water mills used to generate electricity, wind power is the most profitable in Japan.
Kuzumaki is part of a nationwide association of 60 local governments promoting wind power. It first installed three windmills in 1999 with a total capacity of 1,200 kw at a cost of about 344 million yen, of which 163 million yen was state subsidized.
The windmills can generate about 3 million kwh a year — enough to supply 900 households. That amount of electricity generated by oil would emit 296 tons of carbon dioxide. The town sells the wind-generated power to Tohoku Electric Power Co., a major utility providing electricity to seven prefectures in the Tohoku region.
Nakamura said the town plans to construct 12 more windmills. Together with the current three, the windmills are expected to generate enough electricity to cover 16,000 households in the town and the four neighboring municipalities.
Wind energy projects have boomed in several sparsely populated areas as people started to consider strong winds as a rich resource rather than a nuisance.
"Wind blows faster than 6 meters per second in one seventh of Japan. The natural resource is enough to make it viable," said Izumi Ushiyama, professor of Ashikaga Institute of Technology in Tochigi Prefecture and an expert on wind energy. Some major companies also see favorable winds blowing in the market for renewable energy.
"The market for wind-generated electricity has been expanding remarkably worldwide," said Toshio Hori of the power and utility projects division of Tomen Corp., a major trading house and the nation's biggest wind power firm. It has four wind energy plants, in Japan, the United States and Europe.
In 1995, the government started a system to encourage municipalities to harness wind energy in a bid to reduce Japan's heavy dependency on fossil fuels, Ushiyama said.
Japan imported about 254.6 million kiloliters of oil last year, 85 percent from the Middle East, according to the Agency of Energy and Resources, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The government started offering subsidies in 1998 to promote wind power in municipalities and in the private sector. This followed the 1997 third Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto, in which Japan committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels by 2010, Ushiyama said.
Following this, the nation's wind power capacity grew six-fold to about 150,000 kw in 2000.
Nuclear core persists
However, the government maintains that nuclear power still is and will be its core energy source and central to efforts to cut emissions.
A ministry panel said recently in a report that the government should construct 13 more nuclear plants by 2010, in addition to the 51 now operating and the four under construction.
"The government considers wind energy and other renewable energy as an accessory," said Mika Obayashi, deputy director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization.
Electricity consumption totaled 837.9 billion kw last year, of which thermal power accounted for 28 percent, nuclear power 34 percent, natural gas 27 percent and hydroelectric power 10 percent. Other renewable sources, including wind energy, amounted to a mere 0.2 percent, according to the government energy agency.
To convert this nuclear-centered policy, a nonpartisan group of 260 lawmakers — including ruling bloc and opposition members — has met since 1999 to discuss establishing a new law to make wind and other renewable energy sources serious alternatives. A number of NGOs have worked with the politicians, and 472 municipalities have announced their support for the legislation.
One of the lawmakers, Mizuho Fukushima, a Lower House member of the Social Democratic Party, said the proposed legislation would require power companies to purchase electricity generated from renewable sources.
The utilities would be subsidized to fill the cost gap between green energy and conventional energy. Wind-generated electricity is now about 11 yen per kwh, whereas electricity from thermal power is 6 yen to 7 yen.
"The subsidy system works. It has been proved because 80 percent of wind energy in the world has been developed by this system," said Tetsunari Ida, leader of Green Energy Law Network. He has conducted wide research on the system in other countries. The Tokyo-based NGO played a key role in drafting the bill with the lawmakers.
Germany, which has introduced a similar subsidy system, has the world's largest wind energy capacity, at 6.11 million kw, 41 times that of Japan, said Ida, who is also an assistant professor at Kyoto Women's University.
Germany has also made a historic decision to shut down its nuclear plants in about 20 years.
Denmark, the second-largest wind power country, forecasts such power will account for 50 percent of its electricity supply in 2030, when the country aims to have reduced its carbon dioxide emissions to 1988 levels.
To do this, Denmark is converting from coal and oil to renewable sources and natural gas, which emit less carbon dioxide, and is also promoting conservation, said Obayashi of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies.
By contrast, in the U.S., the administration of President George W. Bush announced last month that it will increase nuclear, coal and oil production.
In Japan, too, strong winds are blowing against the bill on renewable energy.
Shuichi Kato, an Upper House member of New Komeito and secretary general of the nonpartisan group, said passage of the bill in the Diet seems unlikely as most Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers oppose it.
"I have repeatedly said to LDP members of the nonpartisan group that it is up to them whether we can make the law," Kato said.
He said the back-scratching relationship between the party, major utilities and bureaucrats, all of whom benefit under the current system, has blocked reform of the nation's energy policy.
Lawmakers promoting renewable energy say it is time for Japan to learn from countries such as Denmark and Germany.
"Japan's long time energy policy is getting obsolete," Kato said. "To realize a shift in energy policy, long-term cozy relations among politicians, utilities and bureaucrats should be eliminated first."
Spinning the atom
In line with the policy of pushing nuclear power, the LDP is preparing a bill for Japan's basic law on energy to submit to an extraordinary Diet session expected later this year.
The bill emphasizes "the need to secure a stable energy supply and to tackle global warming." Although the bill does not specifically mention atomic power, it would apparently enforce the construction of more nuclear plants, which residents at planned sites have fought against.
"Nuclear energy is excellent in terms of economy and supply. It also emits much less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels," said Akira Amari, a senior Lower House member who heads the LDP's committee on general energy policy.
Referring to the pressing need to reduce the nation's heavy dependence on imported oil, Amari said nuclear power is a core energy source and it is too risky to expect other renewable energy sources to play a major role.
But antinuclear citizens' groups question Amari's claim that nuclear power is a clean option.
Naoyuki Hata of Kiko Network (climate network), a Kyoto-based NGO, argued that nuclear power, which produces radioactive waste, poses another environmental threat.
Masako Sawai of Citizens Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo said the LDP aims to make the basic law on energy a kind of Constitution to promote nuclear energy.
It is clear, she said, that a policy centered on nuclear power will not work.
The majority of voters in the village of Kariwa, Niigata Prefecture, in a May 28 plebiscite, rejected a plan to introduce plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel at a local Tokyo Electric Power Co. reactor.
In Fukushima Prefecture, the governor decided to suspend accepting MOX fuel in March, anxious about safety.
The MOX project, which recycles nuclear waste, is seen as indispensable to the nation's nuclear energy policy.
Daisuke Yoshida of the Kariwa Municipal Assembly said village residents cannot trust a government's continued claims that nuclear power is safe, after an accident caused by negligence at a uranium processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, killed two workers in 1999, and after British Nuclear Fuels falsified data on the quality of MOX fuel for the Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture.
To encourage local governments to accept nuclear plants, the LDP and its allies passed a bill in December to increase state subsidies for localities that host reactors.
The Fukui governor announced June 5 that he formally approved safety inspections of the Monju fast-breeder reactor. The controversial facility, which has been shut down since a 1995 sodium leak accident and subsequent coverup, could resume operations.
The new legislation has met with much local anger, with claims that the government is using tax money as an incentive for communities to expose themselves to the risks nuclear facilities pose.
Yoshida of Kariwa meanwhile said public subsidies have not revitalized his village, contrary to government promises.
"The government always says 'subsidies promote the development of local industries.' People first believed that subsidies would create more jobs and bring their children back from Tokyo to the village," Yoshida said. "But the children say they don't want to come back to where nuclear power plants are."