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Thursday, May 10, 2012

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Harnessing nature: Wind turbines at the Ikata Wind Farm in Ehime Prefecture were erected near the town's nuclear plant in 2002. Right: Solar panels blanket an 11-hectare compound at the Ukishima Solar Power Station in Kawasaki on May 2. Calls for alternative power sources to nuclear energy are mounting after Japan shut down its last operating nuclear reactor last Saturday. AP

Green energy's future murky as summer looms


Another long, stupefyingly hot summer is looming just after the nation's last operating nuclear power reactor was shut down, worsening a squeeze on electricity and adding urgency to calls for a green energy revolution.

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Nuclear reaction: Participants hold "no nukes" signs to celebrate the last of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors going offline at a rally in Tokyo on Saturday. AP

On Saturday, the last of the country's 50 usable reactors was switched off, completely idling a power source that once supplied a third of the nation's electricity. At a time when temptation to set air conditioners to deep freeze is at its greatest, companies and ordinary Japanese will be obliged to economize amid summer temperatures that can climb above 40 degrees.

Nuclear energy had been a mainstay of the nation's power supply until the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in the worst atomic accident since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. Authorities have since tightened safety standards and refrained from restarting reactors that were shut down, mostly for routine checks.

To offset the shortfall, utilities have ramped up oil- and gas-based generation, giving resource-poor Japan, the world's third-largest economy, its biggest annual trade deficit ever last fiscal year. That $100 million-plus a day extra cost, worries over the risks of nuclear power and concern over carbon emissions are leading many decision-makers to view renewable energy such as solar, hydro and wind power more positively.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has pledged to reduce the nation's reliance on nuclear power over time. And the country is debating renewable energy targets of between 25 to 35 percent of total power generation by 2030, looking to Germany, which raised the proportion of renewables from 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent by 2010.

"If Japan has the motivation, it can do this, too," said Sei Kato, deputy director of the Environment Ministry's Low Carbon Society Promotion Office. "We have the technological knowhow. Japan can do anything that Germany can."

But real change has been slow. Giant solar arrays and wind farms can't be built overnight and powerful utilities that spent billions on nuclear are lobbying to protect their interests. The government is muddling along, seemingly unable to take a decisive stand either way as opinion becomes increasingly polarized between mavericks calling for massive investment in alternative energy sources and big business interests that favor keeping Japan Inc. nuclear-powered.

Many believe the country has little choice but to restart nuclear reactors — even in the face of spirited public opposition. Utilities predict power supplies could fall 14.9 percent below demand in the Kansai region during peak summer usage.

The government is eager to restart some reactors in the coming months if it can persuade skeptical local leaders and residents that they are safe.

"The bottom line is that without nuclear power, Japan will have a very hard time meeting demand," said Paul Scalise, a fellow at the University of Tokyo who specializes in the nation's energy sector.

Oil, coal and gas now generate nearly 90 percent of the nation's electricity, with hydropower accounting for about 8 percent and other renewables — solar, wind, geothermal and biomass — making up the balance.

The International Energy Agency estimates shutting all nuclear plants increases oil demand by 465,000 barrels a day to 4.5 million barrels a day, raising Japan's daily costs by about $100 million.

Hiroshi Hamasaki, an energy expert at Fujitsu Research Institute, estimates that with stable "feed-in" tariffs, which guarantee renewable energy producers a fixed price for their power, renewable energy generation could surge by 200 times over the next three years.

"There will be a boom close to a bubble, with many companies rushing to enter the market over the next three to five years," Hamasaki said.

Although experts are enthusiastic, green energy here still faces numerous obstacles and headwinds. Besides the nuclear industry's vested interests, those barriers include stifling regulations, a power grid ill-suited to accommodating volatile solar and wind energy, and the huge upfront costs of building solar or geothermal plants. Both are technologies in which Japan is a world leader, although it has lost out to China in solar cost competitiveness.

To help move things along, the government is easing restrictions on land use for solar and wind power. It also is relaxing regulations on small hydropower projects and regulations on drilling for geothermal energy in national parks.

More crucially, last month it approved feed-in tariffs that are expected to spur investment by guaranteeing higher returns for renewable than for conventional energy.

From July, utilities will be required to buy electricity from renewable energy providers at a rate of ¥42 per kwh for solar energy, ¥23 per kwh for wind power and ¥30-35 per kwh for small-scale hydropower. These preferential rates will apply for 10 to 20 years depending on the energy source.

Most of those higher rates will be passed on directly to consumers.

That business incentive is essential, said Masayoshi Son, a telecom tycoon and leading proponent of renewable energy. He said the rates were a "good start," adding that if prices were any lower, "Japan would likely never see a new energy era."

Son, founder of telephone company Softbank Corp., set up SB Energy Corp. last October to promote, generate and sell renewable energy.

The company has begun building five megasolar plants across the country, with output capacity of 2.1 megawatts to 2.8 megawatts. The first is expected to begin operations as soon as July 1. That is still just a fraction of the nation's 3.5 gigawatts of installed solar capacity.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan says member companies are building 20 megasolar facilities capable of providing 103 megawatts by March 2015.

A vocal critic of the domestic business establishment for years, Son has publicly blasted Japan's regulators and utilities for working together to block new entrants and keep the power rates that consumers pay high.

But the heavy political influence once exerted by the country's "nuclear village" of power companies and regulators is waning, experts say.

"Before, many companies were reluctant to move toward renewable energy because they were afraid of displeasing the utilities, but that has changed," said Koichi Kitazawa, head of an independent commission investigating the Fukushima crisis and former president of the Science and Technology Agency.

Many of the country's biggest corporations, from steel mills and automakers to ceramics and electronics makers, also are developing renewable technologies, often incorporating solar and wind power features into their own offices and factories.

Most renewable initiatives remain piecemeal, such as a "smart community" plan for Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, a tsunami-hit city planning to rebuild as an eco-town powered by solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.

Unlike a European country such as Denmark, which has pledged to shift entirely to renewable energy by 2050, Japan is an island. An Asian "supergrid" proposed by Son that would link Japan to mainland Asia, and massive wind power capacity in the Gobi Desert, would take years and could prove prohibitively expensive.

Even Son concedes that renewable energy is going to serve only a small percentage of electricity demand over the next few years.

"The point is to change components of the energy mix 10, 20 or 50 years from now," he said.

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