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Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012
Energy shift generates hope, anxiety
Plan to phase out nuclear power gutsy but fraught with unknowns
By MAI IIDA
About a year and a half into the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Japan's energy policy is at a turning point as the government vows to pursue the elimination of atomic power by the 2030s.
But the government's new policy, which calls for a significant rise in renewable energy, has divided opinion, with some looking at it with hope and others with anxiety.
The policy shift could be a big opportunity for businesses involved in renewable energy and energy-saving technologies.
Other companies also stand to gain, including a unit run by mobile phone operator Softbank Corp. that is gearing up to build solar plants and wind farms.
Concerns remain, however, over how the transition will affect society overall, including economically.
"I think we should increase the use of renewable energy, but it is just too risky to place too much hope on it," Keigo Akimoto, a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo, said, citing concerns over the stability of renewable energy, its output, how fast it will spread and the impact of the expected rise in electricity bills.
Akimoto, an environmental policy researcher, said the government's plan to triple electricity output from solar and other renewable energy sources to 300 billion kwh by 2030 from their 2010 level is "too optimistic."
Under its earlier estimate, the government said the number of houses with solar panels should be jacked up to 12 million nationwide from 0.9 million in 2010 to help reduce nuclear power to zero in 2030. It also urged a rapid expansion in wind farms to 610 by 2030, up from just 30 in 2010.
In 2010, nuclear power supplied about 26 percent of the nation's energy needs. Then came the March 2011 triple-meltdown crisis at the temblor- and tsunami-struck Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, an event that precipitated the shutdown of the rest of the nation's 50 viable reactors.
The disaster destroyed public confidence in the nuclear power program, which had for decades been promoted as safe, cheap and clean. It also prompted the government to declare the new, zero-nuclear policy goal on Friday that promises to do away with atomic power in the 2030s.
Before the Fukushima crisis, the government planned to boost Japan's reliance on nuclear power to 53 percent by 2030.
According to government data, if Japan abandons nuclear power by 2030, the average monthly electricity bill for nonsingle households will swell to ¥32,243 from ¥16,900 in 2010. Abandoning nuclear power will also weigh down gross domestic product, the government data said.
But Hiroshi Takahashi, research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute, believes replacing nuclear with renewable energy is "not impossible" and that Japan should take this opportunity to initiate a transformation of its industrial structure.
"I think we are confronting the issue of deciding what kind of industrial structure the nation should seek," he said.
While affirming that Japan's traditionally strong manufacturing sector is definitely important, Takahashi said that energy efficiency should be a part of that.
"Shouldn't we shift to creating more value-added products that require less electricity?" he asked, citing renewable energy and power conservation services as areas requiring more focus.
The government plans to encourage competition in the power market by liberalizing the retail electricity market and reforming the electricity transmission system as well.
Achieving the transition will require steady enforcement of the feed-in tariff scheme introduced in July to promote renewable energy, a revamped electricity grid and looser regulation, Takahashi said, adding the government should be more aggressive in encouraging citizens' efforts to both generate and save electricity.
National policy minister Motohisa Furukawa said after formulating the energy policy that achieving the "green energy revolution" could reverse the current assumption that electricity consumption trends bear a direct relationship to economic expansion.
"Some people may say it is impossible. But think about it. Who on Earth expected 20 years ago to see mobile phones and smartphones used so much in today's society?" he asked at a press conference.
"I'm confident that the realization of the green energy revolution can lead to a series of innovations, like the IT (information and technology) revolution did, and bring significant change to society in the near future," Furukawa said.
But he noted that its success hinges on the degree of the public's participation, and that this could determine when Japan can achieve a nuclear-free society.