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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Renewable's time is now, expert says

Goal should be 100% reliance on alternative energy by 2050


Staff writer

Prime Minister Naoto Kan's request that Chubu Electric Power Co. shut down the Hamaoka nuclear power plant was valuable, though he should have reached this decision much sooner after the Fukushima crisis, according to an expert on nuclear and renewable energy.

News photo
Green advocate: Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, speaks at the institute in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, on Monday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"Kan's decision was late, compared with that of German Chancellor (Angela) Merkel," Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, said this week in an interview.

Merkel decided to shut down seven old reactors in Germany on March 15, four days after the massive earthquake and tsunami hit Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Iida, a former engineer at Kobe Steel Ltd. who designed the dry storage casks for holding spent nuclear fuel at the Fukushima plant, is proposing to terminate all nuclear power plants in Japan and shift to renewable energy sources.

"Given the safety problems (posed by natural disasters), the government should shut down nuclear power plants in Japan," said Iida, who has been discussing energy policies with several bureaucrats in the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade.

Iida and ISEP researchers estimate that Chubu Electric can provide 30.59 million kilowatts without nuclear power, enough to cover this summer's projected demand of 26.37 million kilowatts.

This can be done by operating all of its thermal power plants and buying surplus electricity from large manufacturers in the Chubu region, who run their own power stations, they say.

This is a feasible arrangement that other power monopolies, not just Chubu Electric, should be able to emulate, Iida said.

According to him, Japan's 54 inefficiently run nuclear reactors are capable of generating 48.96 million kilowatts of electricity, but 60 percent, or 29.23 million kilowatts wasn't being supplied Monday because the majority of the reactors are offline for maintenance, disaster repairs or safety problems.

To compensate the public for damage caused by the Fukushima crisis, Iida told The Japan Times that the power companies should tap invisibly collected funds they have set aside for recycling spent nuclear fuel.

The nation's nine power companies with nuclear plants have been charging households about ¥100 to ¥200 per month for the controversial recycling program since 2005, although the charge is not specifically listed on their electricity bills, Iida and industry officials say.

The charge generates some ¥500 billion a year and amounted to ¥2.4 trillion as of March. Iida said this pool of money should be used for compensation.

The research and development budget for the nuclear power industry should also be reviewed and reduced so that part of it goes toward compensation, he added.

Iida, who also worked for the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, a nonprofit foundation that researches and develops energy sources, including nuclear power, said he quit his job in the nuclear industry because he was tired of the cozy relationships among power companies, nuclear plant makers, bureaucrats and politicians, which he described as the "nuclear village."

"In the nuclear village, people believe in nuclear power only. I felt meaningless working with these people," Iida said.

Through working in the industry, Iida learned that safety reports submitted by power companies to government inspectors are actually written by the companies that build the reactors and that the utilities don't even have the ability to compile such reports.

Given the risk of further nuclear accidents, the government, business and the public should make the shift to renewable energy, Iida said.

Although the authorities have claimed it is unrealistic to raise the share of renewable energy sources due to their high cost, Iida argued that Germany and other European countries have had dramatic success in this regard.

For example, in Germany the percentage of renewable energy in the power supply increased to 16 percent in 2010 from 10 percent in 2000 by enacting a Renewable Energy Law, he said.

The law instituted a system called Feed In Tariff that obliges power companies to buy all power generated through renewable sources at fixed, premium prices.

The prices are set differently according to the costs of the various renewable energy forms, such as wind, solar and geothermal. The system passes the extra cost on to consumers and enables renewable energy investors to obtain reasonable returns.

Iida explained that the system has helped the spread of renewable energy in Germany, and as a result the cost of generating power through alternative sources has declined.

Japan is trying to follow suit. The administration is trying to submit a bill that would adopt a system similar to the German model in the current Diet session.

The expert said if Japan adopts such a system, renewable energy sources would account for 20 percent of the overall supply in 2020, up from current 10 percent.

"Japan should target supplying 100 percent of power by renewable energy sources in 2050. It's an ambitious goal, but I believe we should work for it," Iida said. Such efforts are being made in various local governments and the private sector, he said, referring to Miyagi Prefecture's postquake reconstruction plan to promote renewable energy sources, and a plan by Softbank Corp. President Masayoshi Son to establish solar and wind power stations in the Tohoku region.

Iida said he has been advising Son on the plan and the Softbank head will probably announce the details by the end of this month.



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