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Japan-progress on new energy

By Dave Elliott

The interim energy policy  outline that emerged in 2012 after the Fukushima nuclear disaster envisaged getting between 25% and 35% of Japans electricity from renewables by 2030, with wind and solar playing major roles.  A new fuller plan is expected soon, but in the meantime progress is being made with renewables, with the Japan Renewable Renewable Energy Foundation claiming that ‘Japan will be able to increase the electricity from renewables to at least 20% of its total consumption by FY2020 without putting an undue burden on corporations or on households’. 

Offshore wind projects, including the floating wind project 16km off the coast from Fukushima, were started. Sea tests on the first 2MW unit at Fukushima went very well, with two 7MW units planned next and eventually maybe 1GW in all.

In parallel, engineering firm Modec has developed a novel 900kW hybrid vertical axis floating wind and tidal current power device, Skwid, a combined ‘Savonius Keel -Wind Turbine Darrieus’. It has been tested 25 km off the coast of Fukuoka prefecture on Kyushu island, although some problems have been experienced- unsurprisingly given the innovative concept. There are many other offshore wind projects underway, including the novel ducted ‘wind lens’ ducted rotor project, with  overall around 350MW of offshore project planned around the country and longer term prospects for perhaps 25GW, along with 25 GW on-land.

A new Feed In Tariff was set up for PV solar. PV is expected to reach 28 GW by 2020 and 50 GW by 2030. It’s certainly been booming, making up 83% of the 1.7GW of clean energy project backed in Japan in 2012 and reaching 10GW in 2013. and

A lot of PV can be on roof-tops, but with land being scarce in Japan, there has been some interest in solar farm canopy systems which allow for continued farming underneath:

PV arrays are also being mounted on light high-density polyethylene floats on reservoirs, with the extra cooling effect from the water said to increase energy output by up to 10%, The 1.2MW Okegawa project used the Hydrelio system initially developed by Ciel el Terre  in France. Next there are plans in Hyogo prefecture to test two 20kW PV floating systems developed by KS Industries in South Korea, mounted on irrigation ponds.

Geothermal energy is also seen as a significant option, solar water heating is already widely used, and there are some wave and tidal projects underway, along with bioenergy schemes, as well as wide range of smart grid and energy efficiency projects, energy saving being an obvious option.

With increased fossil fuel imports replacing the 45GW of closed nuclear plants,  emissions will continue to rise in the interim, and tragically Japan recently cut its carbon reduction targets. However, longer term, is does seem reasonable to hope that, with perhaps 50 GW of wind the same for PV, plus smaller inputs from other green sources, renewables could be expanded to meet about the same output as was obtained from the closed nuclear plants, even given the lower load factors. But it will take time. Unlike Germany, Japan did not have a green energy plan to fall back on and it still hasn’t produced a full one.

In fact, with few indigenous fossil resources and the cost of importing coal and gas being very high, there seem to be no alternative. Some hope that Japan can get methane gas from sea-bed deposits of ‘fire ice’, frozen methane hydrates. One site is 50km away from Japan’s main island, in the Nankai Trough. It’s thought there may be enough for ten years worth of supply there and 10 times that elsewhere. But the sea-bed geology is said to be unstable in many places and a sudden release of large amounts of methane gas trapped in the hydrates could be catastrophic for the climate. There’s the risk of a major explosion too and maybe a resultant tsunami. And of course you still get CO2 when CH4 is burnt.

Some still look to nuclear and that may yet make a limited come back. But opposition remains very strong. In September, the two plants restarted, despite massive objections, last summer, were shut for ‘annual checks’, making Japan zero nuclear again, with no date for restarts. In October, 40,000 people marched in Tokyo calling for them all to stay shut – for ever: – .UlIUXnDn-M8,

However the new more pro-nuclear Liberal government would like to see up to 10 plants restarted in 2014, given dramatically rising CO2 emissions (39% in the last year) due to the use of imported fossil fuel (mainly LNG) to replace the nuclear output, and the huge rise in energy costs, due to these expensive imports. Any nuclear plant restarts would have to get full safety clearance, and that may take time given the new more independent regulatory agency that has been set up. Other institutional changes are planned, the energy market structure being revamp, ostensibly to limit the power on the big utilities. But that will also take time- and the impact on renewables is unclear. What would help is some firm renewable targets, but we will have to wait a while for that.

Meanwhile leaks continued at Fukushima. The vast amounts of water, used to cool fuel in the 3 damaged reactors to stop them overheating, is inevitably contaminated with radio-active material, but it will continue to be passed through until the melted fuel is removed. That is a long way off.  So ever increasing amounts of water will have to be stored, awaiting clean up- and that risks leaks. About a third of the 1000 or so tanks built have rubber seals, some of which have proved unreliable, at one point leaking 300 tons per day.

It’s all made much worse by the flow of groundwater into the buildings, adding to the flow, with some ending up in the sea. Some saw the plan to stop this influx, by sealing the buildings behind a mile of subterranean wall of ground frozen by liquid coolant, as costly to run, since it relies on electricity, and dubious, since it has never been tried on this scale. It would also be very expensive to build- maybe costing  £200m.

The longer-term plan to extract the melted fuel cores from the damaged reactors was also questioned, given the extent of the damage during the explosions and subsequent meltdowns.

Even shifting fuel from mostly undamaged Reactor 4 was seen as very risky Indeed some saw it a risky in the extreme.  However, as WISE noted, some of the more apocalyptic talk was perhaps overstated:  Certainly the fuel had to be moved, since the building was unsafe, and possibly prone to collapse if there was another major earthquake, and the transfer went ahead, evidently so far without problems. Even so, it will take many decades to clear the site up and small leaks continue to be a problem, while it seems the undamaged units 5 and 6 will be left as relics.

In terms of wider impacts, we are constantly told that no health problems are likely: And that the 2020 Olympics in Japan will be fine-a long way off in space and time! Well time will tell. Though recriminations over responsibilities

It is clear that, whatever new policies emerge, with many thousands of people still displaced from the Fukushima area and the economy in crisis, Japan will never be the same: See a good overview, and for a discussion of the arguably over hasty cut back in carbon targets. Certainly the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation claims that Japan could ‘reduce the amount of CO2 emissions from power generation by 40% in FY2020 from the FY2012 level, without relying on nuclear power. This can be achieved by strengthening energy saving, efficiency, expanding renewables, and adopting efficient gas-fired plants’. For more

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