Shifting to Renewables in Japan – An Uphill Task
TOKYO, Aug 28 2012 (IPS) – Renewable energy is emerging as the “clinch deal” in Japan`s painful power crisis that pits the government and business against public demand for zero nuclear power. But experts say the going is easier said than done.
“Renewable energy is now seen as the way forward for a decision that is heavily political. But issues remain contentious,” said energy expert Professor Takao Kashiwage, the advisory head of the government`s New Energy Subcommittee.
Kashiwage points out that renewable energy sources – mainly solar, wind, small hydro and geothermal from hot springs – while seen as a solution are still fraught with uncertainties given their dependence on the vagaries of the weather or public support.
“For a leading economy such as Japan`s, I would support keeping nuclear power as a firm option even though we must work to lessen that percentage,” he told IPS.
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He explained that research has shown windmills located on Japanese seashores produce power that drops during the summer when winds are usually not strong. And in winter, when daylight hours shrink, solar generated energy is less abundant.
Even geothermal, touted as a vital energy investment in Japan given the country’s abundant hot springs, is facing a battle with local resorts – the Kusatsu Hot Spring Resort association, on Kyushu island, announced opposition to developing the clean energy for fear that the precious mineral hot springs would decrease in supply.
Japan is set to unveil a new energy policy this month that aims to reduce the country`s dependence on nuclear power drastically by 2030. Nuclear power officially supplies 30 percent of national needs, a figure that has changed given the temporary halt of 52 of Japan`s 54 nuclear reactors.
The devastating Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 has forced Japan to phase out nuclear power. High radiation spewed from the damaged reactors contaminated large swaths of farmland, the ocean and cities and forced tens of thousands of people out of that area in the northeast of the country.
The bitter test now for Japan is to ensure a stable supply of electricity from alternative energy sources to match the nuclear power output that provided over a trillion megawatts per hour.
Anti-nuclear advocates say they are determined to keep the pressure on the government, to force a pledge for zero nuclear power in the upcoming energy policy.
“Civic protests must highlight the actual economic benefits of their movement. Energy efficiency technology development in Japan will support economic growth and also reduce our dependence on power,” said Professor Masaru Kaneko, a leading opponent of nuclear power.
The cabinet sees energy policy as a choice between two scenarios. On one hand, zero nuclear power, which would boost renewable energy dramatically to 35 percent as well as increase the use of fossil fuels. The other is maintaining nuclear power, but at a reduced rate: less than 20 percent.
The first option is rejected by nuclear proponents, who warn that higher electricity charges as Japan imports fossil fuels and invests more on new electricity grids would lead to business decline and security risks in the next few years.
The Japan Association of Corporate Executives released a statement this month warning that it was against the national interest to abandon the peaceful use of nuclear power and scrap-related technologies.
The Japan Research Institute reports companies will face higher production costs given higher generation costs for renewables.
Indeed, electricity charges this month have risen, albeit slightly (less than 10 percent per kilowatt per hour). This is nevertheless expected to dampen business growth significantly and increase unemployment, while pushing companies to move abroad.
But politicians are reluctant to announce a solution, fearful of a backlash from the electorate. A government opinion poll released this week showed nearly 50 percent of respondents want Japan to abolish nuclear power by 2030, and also indicated that the more informed people are with regard to energy issues, the greater their support for reducing nuclear reliance.