Renewables Update

A stronger and richer Japan is possible in Japanese

18 September 2014 Tomas Kåberger, Chair of Executive Board, Japan Renewable Energy Foundation

In September 2014, Japan has experienced 12 months without any nuclear power for the first time since 1966. Japan got most nuclear electricity in 1998, since then nuclear power has failed to meet the expectations of growth, but struggled with technical and economic problems. However, it was the engineering and management failure resulting in the Fukushima catastrophe after the March 2011 earthquake that caused in the collapse of Japan’s nuclear electricity production.

Other industrial countries in the world have all opened for the opportunities of new, decentralized production technologies. The electricity grid and power plants are separated, making competition possible. Development of renewable energy technologies and open markets, last year made renewable electricity increase more than nuclear and fossil power taken together, globally!

By a heroic effort, consumers in Germany and some other countries, some years ago committed to pay for the industrial development of solar and wind power. This effort has provided the whole world with low cost sustainable energy opportunities. In the US, new wind power plants provide electricity at 4 yen per kWh outcompeting all other sources. In Portugal wind is reported to cost 30% less than fossil power and in Denmark, the government energy agency report the cost of new wind power to be about half the cost of new coal or gas fired power.

The few nuclear power projects, report costs far higher than coal, and some three times the cost of wind.

For the old power industry in Japan this may appear as a bad thing. The enormous resources Japan has put into nuclear investments may never give back what they hoped.

But for the Japanese people, and Japan as a nation, the global development has created a bright future for this island state: As long as the world was dependent on fossil and uranium fuels for energy supply Japan was a resource-poor country, as nuclear fuel, coal, oil and gas all were imported. On the other hand, when technologies are economically available to harvest renewable energy Japan can become one of the energy rich countries in the world using the large resources of wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal energies available among the Japanese islands!

Redirecting the industry to make use of these new opportunities has been slow in Japan. The Japanese industrial and engineering capacity do exist. Rearranging policies and institutions may require most time.

But the economic incentive for Japan is very strong. Falling behind other industrial countries that have come further in adopting the new technologies threatens industrial competitiveness. Importing fuels is expensive, the balance of trade should not be allowed to be negative for long. So, political leadership, facing the old power companies in the interest of the whole country is urgently needed.

So far, what we have seen is the people of Japan supporting the country by investing in solar PV on their roofs. During the last year Japan was second only to China in expanding solar electricity supply.

And we can see some positive results. The Federation of Electric Power Companies published data for August 2014 showing that compared to August 2013 the production from the last two reactors in Oi was lost. However the new solar capacity and energy savings made it possible for the power companies to cut the oil consumption in half, thereby reducing the cost of import and the carbon-dioxid emissions.

A small achievement on the road to making Japan an energy rich and economically strong country.