by Dave Elliott
Japan’s use of both fossil fuels and renewables has increased since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster but, with energy costs being high, improved energy efficiency and massive energy saving drives have pushed national power consumption in 2015 down 12% below the 2010 level. There have been attempts to get approval to restart some the 43 surviving reactors, but so far only 3 have restarted fully – 2 more did, but then closed following court orders. With renewables, including hydro, supplying 14.3% of power in Japan in the year to March 2016, they are producing much more output than nuclear – 139TWh versus 4.3TWh in 2015. Rapid expansion is planned, but even more is being called for. Meanwhile, the slow and expensive process of cleaning up Fukushima rumbles on, with worries still emerging about leaks and contamination.
Fukushima still dominates much of the energy scene. Recent estimates have almost doubled the expected clean-up and compensation costs to around £140bn, with, controversially, some of this perhaps to be passed on to consumers. The site clean up is not going well, with waste water still leaking. The frozen soil containment wall that has been created at the Fukushima site to try to stem the flow of groundwater seems to have failed.
Fukushima worker cancer cases have also begun to emerge: it takes time for cancers to develop, but at least one TEPCO employee has already died, and 11 staff have applied for worker’s accident compensation after developing cancer. Two have been granted benefits, while five other cases are still under consideration. One more, with leukaemia, has now won benefits. There may be more, including thyroid cancers in people who were children at the time.
Despite the problems with Fukushima, the government clearly wants to restart more nuclear plants, and there has been talk of up to 19 candidates. However, quite apart from the continuing public opposition to restarts, there could be unexpected technical problems with this plan. As in France, where dozens of reactors have had to be taken off-line for safety checks, there may be steel forging faults with some of the old plants. The proposal to restart the problem-plagued Monju plutonium-breeder reactor has also met resistance. The $9.8 bn reactor has hardly operated since an accident in 1995, months after it went online. It has only operated for 250 days in the past 22 years, and has cost about $200m per year just for maintenance. It would cost several billions to get it working properly.
While the power utilities are still keen on nuclear, that view is beginning to be undermined by challenges from some company shareholders. In parallel, support for renewables is growing. In the past the energy utilities have been strongly resistant to renewables seeing them as competitors. That still seems to be an ongoing fight. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report says ‘Japanese utilities are insisting on, and the government has granted and reinforced, the right to refuse cheaper renewable power, supposedly due to concerns about grid stability – hardly plausible in view of their far smaller renewable fractions than in several European countries – but apparently to suppress competition’.
However, things are changing. The Japan Association of Corporate Executives, linking 1,400 executives from around 950 companies, recently issued a statement calling for the removal of hurdles to renewables. It noted the outlook for nuclear was ‘uncertain’. The vice chair of the Association commented: ‘We have a sense of crisis that Japan will become a laughing stock if we do not encourage renewable power’. Professor Andrew DeWit, at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said ‘Many business leaders have clearly thrown in the towel on nuclear and are instead openly lobbying for Japan to vault to global leadership in renewables, efficiency and smart infrastructure.’
In addition, some consumers may take matters into their own hands. The World Nuclear Industry Status report notes that ‘as renewables continue to become cheaper and more ubiquitous, customers will be increasingly tempted by Japan’s extremely high electricity prices to make and store their own electricity and to drop off the grid altogether, as is already happening, for example, in Hawaii and Australia.’
Grid defection may not be widespread yet, but consumers are keen on renewables, although with some reservations on costs. In a poll, 36% of respondents said that they would switch to green power providers as long as prices remain similar to what they are now, but 5% said that they would use renewable energy only if prices decreased. And 32% said that they do not want to use electricity generated by nuclear plants.
Meanwhile, on the retail side, 130 new energy retailers have entered the market. That’s due to the post-Fukushima energy market deregulation programme, which aims to break the power of the big energy utilities. It is stimulating local renewable project development. So far, about 14 cities have formed companies to generate clean energy from local resources and sell it to area businesses and homes. With full deregulation of markets, 1,000 city-operated companies should be up and running by 2021, in a direct challenge to regional power monopolies. Local wind and PV co-ops are also spreading.
Certainly the use of solar PV is now becoming widespread, backed by a Feed-In Tariff, with over 26GW in place by the end of 2015. Most of it is on roof tops, but some of it is on old abandoned golf courses and some is in offshore floating arrays. Ultimately 140 GW of PV might be possible. On-shore wind has been slower to develop, but the potential is large, perhaps 65GW, and the potential offshore may be even larger. Major offshore wind projects are underway, including some floating systems, which can extend the potential by going further out to sea in deep water. A 2 MW floating offshore wind turbine has been tested off the coast from Fukushima and a 7 MW version is being developed there. In parallel, Kagoshima island, a part of Goto City in Nagasaki prefecture, now hosts Japan’s first on-grid 2 MW floating offshore wind turbine (FOWT), part of an ambitious green energy island plan.
The current target is to get 22-24% of electricity from renewables by 2030. Many want that raised, with much more ambitious scenarios for rapid expansion being backed by green think tanks like ISEP, the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, and trade groups like Japan’s Wind Energy Association and many others. In them, PV solar and wind are the main focus, as now.
It seems clear that solar PV and wind will be the mainstay of expansion, along with existing and expanded hydro, large and small (it currently supplies around 9% of Japan’s power), and new geothermal and biomass. But Japan is also branching out into tidal current turbines: it is to test a 2MW Open Hydro unit built in France at Naru Strait, Goto City, Nagasaki Prefecture. It has also been looking at its wave resource, and the scale of the marine resource is quite significant.
With PV booming and domestic uptake expanding, as elsewhere, storage and grid balancing are also becoming key issues, with, given its advanced ICT capabilities, Japan being well placed to develop innovative new flexible energy management systems.
Clearly Japan is still at the crossroads: renewables are emerging, but nuclear remains the default position for some. Despite the continuing fears and widespread opposition, it is seen as cheaper. Certainly importing LNG to replace it has been very expensive, weakening Japan’s economy and increasing carbon emissions – they have rocketed. But as the cost of renewables falls and capacity builds up, with local projects getting consolidated, the balance may tip away from both fossil and nuclear.
A new energy plan is due soon. Media reports claim that while Japan will cut reliance on nuclear, with coal currently being cheap, it may become more dependent on coal-fired power. But it will also depend increasingly on renewables. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition won a landslide victory in an election in July for parliament’s upper house. That may strengthen his drive to restart at least some more nuclear plants, despite the opposition. But it also seems likely that he will have to back more renewables.