Tag Archives: renewable energy Japan

Praying for Renewable Energy

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Fukushima prefecture itself pledged to get all its power from renewable sources by 2040.  The hoped-for transformation, however, has been “slow and almost invisible.”…Renewable generation has grown from 10% of the power supply in 2010 to 17% in 2018, almost half of which comes from old hydropower schemes. Most nuclear plants, which provided more than a quarter of the country’s power before the 2011 disaster, have been shut down… But for the most part they have been replaced not by wind turbines and solar panels but by power stations that burn coal and natural gas. The current government wants nuclear plants to provide at least 20% of electricity by 2030. It also wants coal’s share of generation to grow, and has approved plans to build 22 new coal-fired plants over the next five years. The target for renewables, by contrast, is 22-24%, below the current global average, and far lower than in many European countries.

Geography and geology provide part of the answer. Japan is densely populated and mountainous. That makes solar and onshore wind farms costlier to build than in places with lots of flat, empty land. The sea floor drops away more steeply off Japan’s coasts than it does in places where offshore wind has boomed, such as the North Sea. And although geothermal power holds promise, the most suitable sites tend to be in national parks or near privately owned hot springs.

Government policies also help stifle the growth of renewable energy. Since the end of the second world war, privately owned, vertically integrated regional utilities have dominated the electricity market. These ten behemoths provide stable power within their regions, but do little to co-ordinate supply and demand across their borders…The limited transmission between regions makes it even harder than usual to cope with intermittent generation from wind turbines and solar panels. It also reduces competition, which suits the incumbent utilities just fine…Recent reforms have attempted to promote renewables both directly and indirectly…The “feed-in tariff”, obliging utilities to pay a generous fixed price for certain forms of renewable energy—a policy that has prompted investors to pile into solar and wind in other countries. In 2016, the government fully liberalised the retail electricity market. It has also set up new regulatory bodies to promote transmission between regions and to police energy markets. In April 2020 a law came into force that requires utilities to run their generation, transmission and distribution units as separate businesses. These reforms constitute a policy of “radical incrementalism”.

Critics say the steps have been too incremental and not radical enough. Utilities continue to make it time-consuming and costly for new entrants to get access to the grid, imposing rules that are “not fair for newcomers”, according to Takahashi Hiroshi of Tsuru University. Existing power plants are favoured over new facilities, and the share of renewables is limited, on the ground that their intermittency threatens the grid’s stability.

But even if the government is timid, investors can still make a difference…. Several of Japan’s big multinationals have pledged to switch to clean power on a scale and schedule that put the government’s targets to shame. Environmental activism has made banks and businesses wary of investments in coal. Even big utilities have come to see business opportunities in renewables, especially in the government’s imminent auction of sites for offshore wind plants. Two of them, Tohoku Electric Power and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), have announced plans this year to issue “green bonds” to finance renewables projects. In March 2020, TEPCO established a joint venture with Orsted, a Danish oil firm that has become a pioneer in offshore wind. 

Exceprts from Renewable Energy in Japan: No Mill Will, Economist, June 13, 2020

Can Nuclear Power Beat Climate Change?

The 2019 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR2019) assesses the status and trends of the international nuclear industry and analyzes the potential role of nuclear power as an option to combat climate change. Eight interdisciplinary experts from six countries, including four university professors and the Rocky Mountain Institute’s co-founder and chairman emeritus, have contributed to the report.

While the number of operating reactors has increased over the past year by four to 417 as of mid-2019, it remains significantly below historic peak of 438 in 2002.  Nuclear construction has been shrinking over the past five years with 46 units underway as of mid-2019, compared to 68 reactors in 2013 and 234 in 1979. The number of annual construction starts have fallen from 15 in the pre-Fukushima year (2010) to five in 2018 and, so far, one in 2019. The historic peak was in 1976 with 44 construction starts, more than the total in the past seven years.

WNISR project coordinator and publisher Mycle Schneider stated: “There can be no doubt: the renewal rate of nuclear power plants is too slow to guarantee the survival of the technology. The world is experiencing an undeclared ‘organic’ nuclear phaseout.”  Consequently, as of mid-2019, for the first time the average age of the world nuclear reactor fleet exceeds 30 years.

However, renewables continue to outpace nuclear power in virtually all categories. A record 165 gigawatts (GW) of renewables were added to the world’s power grids in 2018; the nuclear operating capacity increased by 9 GW. Globally, wind power output grew by 29% in 2018, solar by 13%, nuclear by 2.4%. Compared to a decade ago, nonhydro renewables generated over 1,900 TWh more power, exceeding coal and natural gas, while nuclear produced less.

What does all this mean for the potential role of nuclear power to combat climate change? WNISR2019 provides a new focus chapter on the question. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Professor at the Central European University and Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III, notes in her Foreword to WNISR2019 that several IPCC scenarios that reach the 1.5°C temperature target rely heavily on nuclear power and that “these scenarios raise the question whether the nuclear industry will actually be able to deliver the magnitude of new power that is required in these scenarios in a cost-effective and timely manner.”

Over the past decade, levelized cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 88%, wind by 69%, while nuclear increased by 23%. New solar plants can compete with existing coal fired plants in India, wind turbines alone generate more electricity than nuclear reactors in India and China. But new nuclear plants are also much slower to build than all other options, e.g. the nine reactors started up in 2018 took an average of 10.9 years to be completed. In other words, nuclear power is an option that is more expensive and slower to implement than alternatives and therefore is not effective in the effort to battle the climate emergency, rather it is counterproductive, as the funds are then not available for more effective options.

Excerpts from WNISR2019 Assesses Climate Change and the Nuclear Power Option, Sept. 24, 2019

The Renewable Energy Bubble in Japan

The shining light that was once Japan’s renewable energy industry is beginning to dim as reality sets in and it faces competition from a rejuvenated nuclear power industry…According to a February nationwide survey by the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, 34 of the 79 solar energy producers who responded said they had given up on at least one solar power project. Roughly 45 percent of those respondents cited difficulties in land procurement, followed by 25 percent who said they had problems joining the power grid.

One such project in Hokkaido, located near the New Chitose Airport, called for a 100-hectare solar power generation facility. The site adjacent to the Abiragawa river remains covered in weeds to this day.  “We call it an April 17 crisis,” said Hiroaki Fujii, the 43-year-old executive vice president at SB Energy Corp., a Tokyo-based company that designed the plans.  On that date this year, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. said it would only purchase a total of 400 megawatts of electricity as part of the feed-in tariff system from the so-called mega-solar power plants, each with a generation capacity of 2 megawatts or more. That amounts to turning down as many as 70 percent of the 87 applications to sell it power, filed through March, with a combined output capacity of 1.568 gigawatts.  One Hokkaido Electric official justified the decision: “Our power grid has a limited capacity. Accepting too much power from solar plants, where output levels fluctuate wildly depending on the weather, compromises a stable supply of electricity.”

One Sapporo-based real estate company lost money speculating. The company purchased two plots of land to host solar power plants that never materialized. “We were taken in by a renewable energy bubble,” the company’s president lamented.

The renewable energy feed-in tariff system was introduced in July 2012. It obligates utilities to purchase electricity generated by solar and wind plants at predetermined prices. The then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan initiated the system in a bid to bolster the nation’s renewable energy production, which accounted for less than 2 percent of the total power generation at the time, to 30 percent.

The regional utility’s decision to limit its purchases of solar power cannot be assigned to grid capacity alone. The decision was taken in large part due to Hokkaido Electric’s expectations that all three idled reactors at its Tomari nuclear power plant will eventually go back online…But if utilities revert to relying on nuclear power to levels before the Fukushima disaster, that could leave very little room for the emerging renewable energy industries to grow.

Enter the savior of Japan’s nuclear energy sector: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s growth strategy. The Abe administration is eager to export Japan’s nuclear technologies and expertise. Not only did his government help secure a contract to build nuclear reactors in Turkey, but Abe himself, acting as the country’s top salesman, visited Saudi Arabia, India and Central Europe to promote Japanese nuclear capabilities.  In late March, a group representing the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) also visited the Sizewell nuclear power plant 160 kilometers northeast of London. The forum’s constituent members include power utilities and manufacturers dealing in nuclear technologies.  There are plans to build two more nuclear reactors on the grounds of the Sizewell site.

“Expanding our nuclear operations overseas has come to play a larger role in our perspective since the Abe administration came to power,” said Akihiro Matsuzaki, an official in the JAIF Department of International Affairs and a member of the mission to Sizewell. Foundation work is already under way there.  Hitachi Ltd., which acquired Britain’s Horizon Nuclear Power Ltd., said it also hopes to boost the annual sales of its nuclear business division from the current 160 billion yen ($1.64 billion) to 360 billion yen by fiscal 2020.  “We will be part of Abenomics (Abe’s economic policy),” Hitachi Senior Vice President Tatsuro Ishizuka told a briefing session for investors on June 13.

MARI FUJISAKI, Japan’s growth in renewable energy dims as nuclear strives for comeback, Asahi Shimbun July 7, 2013