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The best national energy mix policy draft, announced at the end of April, is increasingly being viewed as a misnomer that extends the life of socially undesirable nuclear power plants, relies on environmentally destructive fossil fuels, and leaves sustainable energy sources under-developed.

On the surface, the initial reaction to announcements, emanating from a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) committee meeting held on April 28, was that the government was committed to setting Japan on a path where sustainable energy would meet a greater share of Japan’s energy needs than would nuclear power.

By proposing that energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power should account for 22-24 percent of the nation’s energy needs by 2030, compared with nuclear power that would account for 20-22 percent over the same period, the METI Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy meeting may have initially suggested a moral victory by the environment-friendly sustainable resources camp.

This latter group is seeking to dismantle Japan’s nuclear village to avoid a repeat of the 2011 nuclear disaster that so adversely affected Fukushima.

Go nuclear or green?
Japan’s 48 nuclear reactors remain offline in the wake of the disasters and decommissioning plans for five of these have been confirmed. Were the government to limit the operating life of the reactors to their originally stated 40 year lifespan, it is estimated that their output would halve by 2030.

But Tokyo, while having pledged that greenhouse emissions will see a 26 percent cut by 2030, at the same time faces the need for clean energy around the clock. Thus, nuclear energy remains the key base-load power source, even as Tokyo tells voters it is heading in the opposite direction.

“We believe METI is caught between the interests of several groups looking to maintain nuclear power,” says Yoshinori Ueda, director of the International Committee of the Japan Wind Power Association.

“Traditional industrial representatives, such as the Keidanren [Japan Business Federation], want lower electricity charges, and the Ministry of Finance wants to prevent the electric power companies from going bankrupt due to the decommissioning of nuclear power plants.

“Hence, even though the ruling Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] official manifesto read by voters highlights ‘the reduction of nuclear power,’” in fact the party remains pro-nuclear.

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Other sources
Nuclear power accounted for just under 30 percent of power generated in the year prior to the Fukushima disaster and, given that METI is calling for nuclear energy to account for a 20-22 percent share of the nation’s energy generation by 2030, there is speculation that Japan would have to bring 15 nuclear reactors back on line to meet its promised CO2 emission cuts.

That would mean extending the life of several reactors—which are in varying states of repair—amid revelations that a number sit on seismic fault lines.

“This is a total defeat of the sustainable energy camp,” says Chuichi Arakawa, a professor in the engineering faculty at The University of Tokyo.

An around-the-clock supply of power also could be provided by geothermal energy, which would appear to fit the bill for any government seeking a sustainable, stable power source.

Japan boasts the world’s third-largest geothermal resources; has the world’s leading geothermal turbine manufacturer, Toshiba Corporation; and is supported by some of the highest subsidies, covering costs from initial surface studies through geothermal exploration and drilling.

Evidence from Iceland, where a geothermal power plant sits adjacent to a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Thingvellir, suggests that environmental opposition to drilling can be overcome. But, geothermal power remains a heavily under-tapped resource in Japan, amid opposition from hot spring owners and worries concerning drilling in national parks.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the March 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit Japan even as the economy was failing to respond to efforts to shake off deflation and boost domestic demand.

As a result, in the absence of nuclear power, Japan has been increasingly required to drive its economy using cheap—but dirty—coal, rather than more expensive imported gas.

The current state of affairs is likely to continue for the time being, with METI estimating that coal and oil combined will account for 29 percent of the energy to be used in 2030, compared with liquid natural gas (LNG), which in that year is predicted to account for 27 percent.

This contrasts with the trend of other industrialized nations and, unless halted, could trap Japan in a downward environmental spiral. It would also be naive to believe that their opposition to nuclear and thermal power has brought the sustainable camp together as one environmentally cozy club.

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Powering on
Major rifts exist between the proponents of solar power—long favored by the Keidanren—and those backers of wind power. METI expects solar power to account for 7 percent of generated power in 2030 compared with only 1.7 percent for wind.

This is based on cost estimations that have solar power costs falling to between ¥12.70 and ¥15.50 per kilowatt/hour in 2030, from ¥24.30 in 2014. Smaller price declines are predicted for wind, to between ¥13.90 and ¥21.9 per kilowatt/hour from ¥29.40 in 2014.

At present, Tokyo sees wind power generating only 10 gigawatts of power in 2030, as against 70 gigawatts for solar power. The wind power camp, however, protests that METI has taken into account only onshore wind facilities, and ignored the possibilities for an industry that is increasingly moving offshore, based on geographical constraints and local opposition to new onshore development.

The great hope of the offshore market is Fukushima FORWARD, an experimental government-funded project in the Pacific Ocean, some 20 kilometers off the Fukushima coast. This undertaking, a key pillar of the Fukushima Offshore Wind Consortium, which is an 11-entity, Marubeni Corporation-led consortium, could eventually lead to a massive wind farm with 132 floating turbines.

While it is true that offshore wind developers may need premiums—in the form of feed-in tariffs—as large as 150 percent higher than those for onshore wind, which would boost consumer costs, observers note that the government has failed to take into account the positive effect of innovation. Improvements in overall cost structures are forecast to lead to cost savings that will eventually feed through to the consumer.

In addition, the Japanese government requires new wind power projects to undergo environmental testing, a lengthy and costly process that is estimated to hold back commercial wind power development until 2016. Solar power is not subject to these requirements.

“From the point of view of wind, the content of the proposal is terrible,” says Arakawa.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s rush to take a crowd-pleasing CO2 reduction proposal to the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June, and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, may work against Japan’s longer term interests in developing environment friendly, cheap alternatives to nuclear power and coal.

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Martin Foster is a bilingual writer who has lived in Tokyo since 1977. Martin spent much of his career in financial journalism, and now focuses on various aspects of business and the economy.

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Nuclear energy remains the key base-load power source, even as Tokyo tells voters it is heading in the opposite direction.