By Aileen Kawagoe
The public and press response to the Fukushima reactor crisis has mostly been an emotional one. One of the key charges underlying much of the local and international angry criticisms laid at Japan’s door is that the government has been irresponsible and relentless in its pursuit of its nuclear energy policy. Japan has fifty-five reactors operating around the country, usually accounting for around one-third of the country’s total electric power output. Until the current disaster brought a halt to the building of more nuclear reactors, Japan was slated to build nine more atomic reactors by 2020 and five more beyond that, in order to decrease the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and increase the nation’s portion of “clean and green” energy to 50 percent of overall power generation by 2030 from 29 percent in 2009.
The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) explains that the reason for Japan having gone down the nuclear path is that the 1970s’ oil crisis exposed resource-poor Japan’s vulnerable energy supply situation with oil imports making up 96% of its energy supply. That propelled Japan to diversify its sources of energy and with Japan’s nuclear energy programme the figure dropped to 82%.
Following the two oil crises in the 1970s, Japan diversified its energy sources further through increased use of nuclear energy, natural gas and coal, as well as the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation. Despite these measures, oil still accounts for about 50% of Japan’s primary energy supply, and nearly 90% of imported oil comes from the politically unstable Middle East. Moreover, Japan’s prospects for importing electricity from neighboring countries are very poor because Japan is an island nation.”
A snapshot picture (source: FEPC chart) shows the current combined position of diversified sources of energy as follows:
Underlying the charges by all detractors of Japan’s nuclear policy is that Japan has been irresponsible in going down that road when it should have pursued less dangerous energy alternatives. But had Japan really ignored all its other alternatives? Were there other viable energy alternatives then, and are there energy options that Japan can readily adopt to allow Japan to decommission its nuclear reactors one by one?
The Coal, Oil or LNG Thermal Power situation
Japan is the world’s largest coal importer. It is also the developer of environmentally-friendly and the world’s most efficient coal-fired thermal plants. Coal is seen as an important energy source because it is economically efficient and stable in supply (source countries are dispersed) and in pricing compared to LNG and crude oil.
However while coal used to be the dominant fuel for thermal power generation in Japan, but it is now second to oil with challenges of supply due to the sharp rise of coal prices, competing demand from Asian countries. Japan has planned to develop only 5 more coal-fired thermal plants by 2020…a much lower share of coal use than other advanced countries: the US, UK and Germany all have plans for more new coal-fired thermal plants than Japan.
Japan needs to import approximately 80% of its energy requirements and is the second-largest importer of crude oil (a summary of Japan’s oil demand may be found here), while it is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
For Japan today, a diverse range of fuels including coal, oil, and LNG are used for the important generating role that thermal power plants play. In particular, in response to global environmental concerns, electric power companies are promoting the introduction of LNG fired plants, as they emit less CO2 and other pollutants.
The research of power companies has been to-date focused on developing new technologies in order to increase thermal efficiency.
However, the biggest problem with coal, oil and natural gas option is that these “fossil fuels are non-renewable. They are limited in supply and will one day be depleted. There is no escaping this conclusion.”-Eric McLamb, Ecology Global Network (see his article for more on the Fossil Fuel Dilemma).
What is important to note is that Japan has had the most effective oil substitution policy among the OECD countries, and has successfully applied energy efficiency measures aimed at increasing the country’s energy security as well as reducing its carbon dioxide emissions. It has managed to reduce its dependence on oil as a primary source of energy from 78% in 1973 to about 43% currently, though this is less than the official target set a few years ago. This trend is expected to continue in the coming years as given the current Libyan-induced-oil spike situation (following the 2008 oil price spike) and the country’s reliance on exports from OPEC countries has, in the minds of policy makers, sealed the need for reducing the Japan’s reliance on oil.
Below, we hope to review the various viable options for renewable sources of energy, and examine what has done by the central government, municipal governments and local corporations – as well as the obstacles in pursuing those alternatives to nuclear energy.
The Solar Energy Option
Japan is already third in the world in terms of total solar energy use (mostly grid-connected), behind Germany and Spain, and it is a leading manufacturer as well as in the top 5 ranking countries for the most PV panels installed. Japan was the world’s second largest producer of photovoltaic electricity until overtaken by Germany in 2006 when government subsidies ended — in 2005 it had 38% of the world supply compared to Germany’s 39%. Since 2008, however, the government stepped up efforts to encourage solar energy use: Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced $145 million monetary incentives toward encouraging home solar power with the goal of having solar power systems installed in more than 70 percent of new homes. Japan is also leading the world in the diffusion of simpler rooftop solar water heaters for residential use, with about 5 million units used nationwide. Apart from these, 0.7 million solar thermal systems have also been set up to provide space heating and cooling as well as hot water. In 2003, Misawa Homes launched the new “Hills Garden Kiyota” housing development in Hokkaido in which all 503 detached houses were equipped with solar power generation systems and heat pumps – producing clean energy on the scale of an entire community and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production. The development’s capacity of 1,500 kilowatts was the world’s largest solar power generation output in one housing community, exceeding the 1,300 kilowatts by the housing complex in Amersfoort, the Netherlands.
The government incentives also covered increasing solar power education in schools, the development of refined deep cycle battery technologies and the installation of grid connections. A short summary of the history of the development of the solar energy industry can be found here.
Analysts have projected that Japan will accelerate its efforts to encourage the use of solar cells for years in the wake of the Fukushima plant crisis, in the face of public pressure to ditch atomic power. According to Professor Emeritus Yoshihiro Hamakawa of Osaka University, photovoltaic power generation in Japan has the potential to generate 307.7 billion kWh per year, or 40 percent of Japan’s current total electrical power generation. This could be realized if 80 percent of Japan’s 25 million households were equipped with solar panels generating 3 kW and 50 percent of Japan’s 450,000 collective housing complexes were equipped with rooftop panels generating 20 kW per building.
However, the obstacles to the solar energy option are cost and the procurement of a supply of certain limited materials.
The Cost Factor – Goldman Sachs was reported to have said that replacing the proposed nuclear plants with solar ones would require 108 gigawatts of photovoltaic generation by 2020, and that is estimated to cost more than $150 billion.
For the consumer, nuclear energy costs about the same as electricity from coal at about 7 cents a kilowatt hour (according to Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy), compared with 6 cents for natural gas, but solar or photovoltaic energy costs 22.3 cents (New Energy Finance 2010 estimates). To instal a 2.4-kilowatt household solar system though, would cost about 1.57 million yen ($19,000), though consumers in Tokyo can receive subsidies of as much as 408,000 yen, home improvement contractors say.
The cost depends heavily on the efficiency of energy conversion, which is highest when monocrystalline silicon is used in the solar cells. Others have noted “At a current cost of 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power costs as much as five times more than conventional fossil fuel-based electricity. In addition to photovoltaic modules, the whole system includes a DC-AC inverter, a charge controller grid to connect with a utility powerline, and a set of frames to hold the modules on rooftops, etc., costing 1.2 million yen (about U.S.$10,000) per kilowatt. This means that a 3 kW system, the size usually installed for one household, costs 3.6 million yen (about U.S.$30,000), which is rather expensive. To spread the use of household photovoltaic systems, the costs for the whole system would have to come down further, and subsidies would also be needed. The government subsidy in Japan has been reduced to only one-third of the equipment cost — by comparison, the German government provides a 70-percent subsidy to promote solar power generation.
And dwindling supplies of polysilicon, the element found in traditional photovoltaic cells, are not helping.” However, a number of promising technological innovations are said to be in the pipeline – spray-on cell or the CIGS combination of copper, indium, gallium and selenium is an alternative for the rarer silicon.
Solar analysts have projected that solar-panel prices will fall from $1.80 in 2010,to $1.50 per watt in the second half of 2011 and that increased domestic use of solar panels will benefit Panasonic and Sharp, Japan’s biggest maker of solar panels, as they earn about half of their solar-panel revenue locally. The strength of these brands and current connections with the homebuilding industry is seen to be a strength in helping Japanese companies capture the market from Chinese solar competitors.
The Hydro-electric power option
Hydroelectric power became the largest local energy resource developed in Japan following the oil crises of the 1970s. As an alternative to the nuclear energy option, the steady development of hydroelectric power plants is no longer possible, because Japan has used nearly all available sites for the construction of large-scale hydroelectric facilities.
The construction of hydroelectric plants especial large dams, has a tremendous impact on the environment and the government has been continually criticized for allowing the hydroelectric dam building projects to destroy the environment and the natural beauty of the riverside. Large dams are one of the direct causes of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions are produced by dam projects: The trees cut down to make way for hydropower projects as well as those that die when the area is flooded release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In addition, the submerged trees and other vegetation decompose and produce another greenhouse gas, methane, which is mainly released through the dam’s turbines and spillways. According to studies, methane could have 25 to 34 times more of an impact on the climate than carbon dioxide.
Hydroelectric dams also disrupt fish passage in rivers and destroy the livelihoods of families who live near the rivers while producing energy that doesn’t benefit them in any way. Instead these dams serve to supply electricity to distant urban centres and, above all, to high energy-consuming industries. Furthermore, studies on Chinese hydroelectric projects show that large-scale dams could even contribute to seismic stress, thus increasing the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis.
Recent developments and solutions have been found through the designing of smaller scale hydroelectric generation plants. Hydroelectric small-scale power generation plants use mountain streams, irrigation water, and water and sewage systems to generate power. In particular, the pumped-storage generation technique is currently the most cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy on an operating basis as 70% to 85% of the electrical energy used to pump the water into the elevated reservoir can be regained. But capital costs and the presence of appropriate geography are critical decision factors. The relatively low energy density of pumped storage systems requires either a very large body of water or a large variation in height.
The share of pumped-storage generation facilities of the total hydroelectric power capacity in Japan is already growing year by year. The construction of these pumped-storage generation facilities is simple cost-efficient, that the power generation system is capable of operating profitably in connection with even modest dam heights. Moreover, the system is concealed in a shaft, minimizing the impact on the landscape and waterways. As the gap in demand between daytime and nighttime continues to grow, Japanese electric power companies are increasingly developing pumped-storage power generation plants to meet peak demand.
The Geothermal power option
Japanese geothermal power generation capacity accounts for 6% in the world and ranks sixth, following USA, the Philippines, Italy, Mexico and Indonesia.
Japan has no fewer than 200 geothermal zones containing 65 volcanoes. The main geothermal sources in Japan are located along the East Japan Volcanic Belt (in the districts of Hokkaido, Tohoku, Hokuriku, Chubu, and the Izu Islands) and the West Japan Volcanic Belt (in the districts of Kyushu and Chugoku), which shows the close correlation between geothermal energy and volcanic areas. Geothermal power thus offers great potential as a domestic energy source.
The advantages of geothermal energy as an energy source are many:
It is a naturally occurring domestic resource; geothermal power plants produce low carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and normally zero emissions when used to generate electricity, unlike thermal power plants that require other fuels. CO2 emissions associated with plant construction at 12 grams per kilowatt-hour (kWh) are the second lowest after hydropower plants, at 11.3 grams, and lower than those from solar- or wind-power plants. Also, geothermal plants can supply reliable base-load power, as they can generate electricity constantly on a 24-hour-a-day basis and are unaffected by natural surface conditions such as weather, so that the operating rate of geothermal plants can be as high as 70 percent compared with 12 percent for solar-power plants and 20 percent for wind-power plants.
A prominent US environmentalist Lester Brown, president of the US-based Earth Policy Institute, a year ago, had told the press that Japan should focus on developing geothermal energy, saying, “There are no leaders in the world today in this field. There is no industrial country in the world that now has a well established geothermal industry” and that “Japan could make geothermal energy the centre of its new energy economy just as the US or China will make wind the centre of theirs”…
In Japan, actual surveying for geothermal energy resources began around 1950, with the first geothermal power station having started its operation in 1966. After 35 years, 16 geothermal power plants in the 14 geothermal power station sites (excluding small power generation facilities for household use) are currently operating in Japan. Total amount of direct geothermal heat consumption in Japan reaches 1,000 TJ…the scale of geothermal power utilization is still small (less than 0.1%) and limited to resources at relatively shallow sites — 2,000 meters below the earth’s surface. After the last geothermal plants were built in Tohoku, Kyushu in the 1990s and Hachijojima Island in 1999, interest in geothermal option dipped and state subsidies for survey expenses were cut. Despite geothermal energy option presenting itself as an obvious green, stable and inexhaustible source of energy source and a way to free Japan from its dependence on oil imports, the impetus to develop the technology slowed in past decade almost dying out, here’s why…
One keeps hearing how Japan being a volcanic country, the geothermal option must be the natural route to go. But it takes years to identify the right geothermal location and it has become increasingly difficult to find locations over hot water resources. As one analysis has it, “A geothermal project is like an oil or mining project. The size of a resource is unknown until drilling activity takes place. A 20-megawatt geothermal power plant requires an initial $7 million to assess, and then an additional $20 million to $40 million to drill. Until the resource proves out, the risk of losing that investment is high. The five-to-seven-year gestation period from discovery to commercial operation presents another hurdle. Few funds are drawn to geothermal projects because of that long payback period. “
The official in charge of geothermal resources at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization said a study to find a good location for a plant takes more than 10 years, and, “There’s no knowing whether resources actually exist. It’s difficult to build a new plant.”
Volcanic areas with the magma to produce the hot water and steam needed for the plants are mostly designated as national parks or protected areas. Building a generation plant in those areas is virtually impossible under the Natural Parks Law.
Geothermal energy development in Japan also has a number of other disadvantages.
The initial investment cost is huge. Generating 1 kwh costs about 13 yen at a geothermal plant, compared with 10 yen at an oil-powered plant and 6 yen at a nuclear plant.
Since fluid from the underground is mainly hot water, a steam turbine is likely to wear out quickly, affecting its efficiency. Having to dig two wells each, one for geothermal fluid supply and the other for its return, to put harmful substances in the hot water back in the soil is another factor pushing up the cost of geothermal energy development.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has been developing binary cycle power generation, which uses two kinds of fluids such as a CFC substitute and isobutane in combination, to explore geothermal resources and to improve power generation efficiency. The ministry has also been studying hot dry rock power generation to produce steam and hot water by injecting water from above the ground into hot dry rocks underground.
Finally, environmental considerations are difficult as well since many hotspring onsen tourist facilities and hotels are built around the potential sites, so that measures have to be taken to preserve the natural scenery, to not damage the land or drain thermal water, so that hot-spring operations will not be disrupted. Since hotsprings are at the heart of Japanese culture and tourism, there has been considerable opposition to new geothermal plant projects.
For example, Electric Power Development Co., or J-Power, had hoped to build a plant near the “onsen” spa town of Oguni in Kumamoto Prefecture but the bid to get a site failed: “We explained that there would be no influence on hot springs and steam for household use, but we couldn’t get the (landowners) on our side,” a company official said.
Besides power generation, heat of geothermal energy itself is directly used. Heat of hot spring is utilized as heat source of air conditioning, greenhouses, fish culturing, thawing on road, and hot water supply for some facilities including swimming pool. Recently, sub-underground heat, which maintains even temperature throughout the year, is drawing public attention as a stable heat source. The sub-underground heat is utilized with geothermal heat pump or ground source heat pump for air conditioning.
In 1997, when geothermal energy was inexplicably excluded as a new energy source when Japanese politicians enacted the Law Concerning Special Measures to Promote the Use of New Energy in June 1997, a law intended to ensure energy security and tackle global warming. The exclusion under this new law resulted in budget cuts in geothermal research and development. Geothermal-related generation systems were also ruled out from the category of new energy sources under the Law on Special Measures Concerning New Energy Use by Electric Utilities — better known as the Japanese Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Law — which was implemented in June 2002. These legislative moves dampened the development of geothermal energy in Japan.
Nevertheless, interest in geothermal plant projects picked up slightly in 2009, when the government announced it was support a 40 billion yen project that would tap into hot water and steam around 2,000 metres below the surface, with the aim of generating up to 60,000 kW of power when it begins operating in 2016. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry had established a study group of industry experts and academics to compile a list of steps supporting the development of geothermal power stations, with proposed measures including financial assistance to launch new projects. A string of new projects for geothermal power plants to be developed by a number of firms, included a geothermal power plant to be constructed in Yuzawa in Akita Prefecture, northern Japan, by Mitsubisi Materials and J-Power. And efforts to exploit this seemingly abundant untapped resource in Japan may pick up even more given recent events.
The Biofuel option
Japan is considered to be lagging behind several other countries in developing liquid biofuels that serve as alternatives for fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.
A highly trumpeted category of “clean” energy is energy produced with so-called “biofuels” or agrofuels. This usually involves the establishment of large-scale monoculture plantations of different crops such as soybeans, oil palm and sugar cane. The devastating social, economic and environmental impacts of plantations like these have been widely studied and demonstrated.
It has been cautioned by some Green activist quarters that the tragedy in Japan will have even more tragic consequences if investments in nuclear energy are shifted towards investments in supposedly “cleaner” sources of energy, such as large-scale monoculture plantations for agrofuel production or the construction of more hydroelectric dams. So-called “clean” energies are not always clean when they are produced on a large scale and may have devastating effects of various kinds. They can strip the environment of forests, ground-cover, mineral or water resources. Biofuel projects are generally investments made by corporations in pursuit of corporate profits. Large-scale agrofuel production and nuclear power plants, continue to be major sources of profits for the companies involved.
Notwithstanding the above arguments made against the biofuel option, the Japanese government’s current thinking, given limited agricultural resources, is to focus very determinedly on cellulosic biofuel as the future for Japan’s biofuel production. Government and private sector research and investment in biofuels have been on the rise since Japan’s plan, “Biomass Nippon Strategy” was unveiled in December 2002 and updated in 2008. Ethanol production for fuel in 2008 was 90 kl, biodiesel production was roughly 10,000 kl. Japan is expected to be able to produce 6 million kl of biofuels domestically by around 2030 if appropriate technical development is achieved. It sets a target to produce 50,000 kl of biofuels from molasses and off-spec rice by 2011 consumption, from ruce straw, wood and tinned resource crops by 2030. Japan has unused biomass resources equivalent to 14 million kl of oil and that it could produce resource crops equivalent to 6.2 million kl of oil by fully utilized the abandoned 386,000 sq. ha. of arable land.
One of the most notable biofuel projects is the Kyoto City’s Biodiesel Project that won the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Award for fiscal 2004 for its superior use of biomass energy. Used cooking oil is collected at 825 locations (as of 2003) within the city and recycled into biodiesel that runs garbage collection trucks. To further promote the use of biomass energy, Kyoto established its own quality standards for biodiesel and built one of the largest waste oil recycling facilities in Japan, which began operation in June 2004. It collects 130,000 liters of waste oil from households and 1.37 million liters from businesses annually, and recycles them into 1.5 million liters of biodiesel. The biodiesel runs all of Kyoto’s 215 garbage collection trucks, as well as 81 municipal buses that run on a 20 percent biodiesel blended with 80 percent light oil. Kyoto has been working on this project since 1997 as part of its activities to promote a recycling-based society and curb global warming. The city named the recycled oil “Miyako-Meguru Oil” (Kyoto-Circulating Oil).
Japan will be able to produce 6 million kl of biofuels domestically by around 2030. It sets a target to produce 50,000 kl of biofuels from molasses and off-spec rice by 2011 and 6 million. oil Industries will start to supply “Biogasoline” = gasoline containing Bio-ETBE(Ethyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether), with all-out efforts. The “Bio-ETBE” is synthesized from bioethanol derived from sugar cane, and iso-buten. They estimated the total sales of the “Biogasoline”, gasoline with 7% of ETBE, would amount to about 140,000kl, during FY 2008, at one hundred gas-stations in the country.
Other notable projects include Japanese plans to convert the majority of its fuel resources to biofuels with 40% of the nation’s cars using biofuels in 5 years. Japanese fuel ethanol production is in an experimental stage, and the current production level is 30,000 liters (April 2006). The Environment Ministry is currently concentrating on the use of ethanol and looking to launch ethanol production on the island of Miyako in the Okinawa island chain, where the majority of the countrys sugarcane molasses is produced. Other existing biorefineries produce ethanol from raw materials such as: wheat and corn unsuitable for food in Hokkaido, sorghum in Yamagata, and wood residues in Okayama and Osaka. To further promote domestic ethanol production, the government hopes to use abandoned arable land (Koizumi and Ohga 2007).
In 2009, the Niigata Prefecture pioneered the sales of a mixture of gasoline and bioethanol made from rice for animal feed. It was reported by the Mainichi Daily News newspaper that bioethanol, produced from brown rice and blended with gasoline at a ratio of up to 3 percent, made a mixture that “is equivalent to regular gasoline both in quality and mileage, and will be available in a similar price range.” The new biofuel will be initially sold at 19 gas stations in the Niigata Prefecture and an annual sales of about 33,000 kiloliters of the rice-based biofuel is expected. The project is expected to promote effective utilization of rice paddies that are left uncultivated due to the government’s rice-reduction program.
The Environment Ministry provided subsidies of 700 million yen for the test sales of the bioethanol for fiscal 2007 and a ministry-owned filling station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden started supplying E3 to the ministry’s cars — the ministry’s goal is that all other government cars will eventually be fuelled by E3. The bio-gasoline were on sale at 50 outlets in the Tokyo metropolitan area by 2007.
In JAL test flights conducted in 2009, the JAL pilots reported that the biofuel was more fuel efficient than 100 percent traditional jet-A fuel (kerosene), a finding consistent with earlier Continental airlines test, thus indicating that biofuels may not only be a carbon-neutral option, but a more fuel efficient one.
The Wind Power option
This option is said to hold great promise in Japan. Wind power generation is being actively introduced around Japan. With recent events, the local television media has been spotlighting and debating the adoption of European wind power generation models. It looked at the Netherlands model which by December 2009, had 1,975 wind turbines were operational in the Netherlands, with an aggregate capacity of 2,221 MW. Several countries have already achieved relatively high levels of wind power generation, all in Europe: Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Germany. Wind power production has expanded by over 30% worldwide: as of May 2009, 80 countries around the world are using wind power on a commercial basis.
In Japan, in recent years, the government’s policies and measures, including the enactment of the Law concerning Promotion of the Use of New Energy – have helped wind power generation make significant progress in Japan. As of January 2003, installed capacity was about 400 MW, but this accounts for only 1.2 percent of global output. The first large-scale commercial wind power generation in Japan was Tomamae, a town in Hokkaido facing the Japan Sea. The Tomen Corporation built twenty 1,000kW wind turbines and began selling electricity in December 1999 to the Hokkaido Electric Power Co. under a 17-year contract.
The Japanese government has continued to increase its focus on wind power, revising its introduction target for the nation drastically. Expectations for wind power generation are rising (the target for 2010 is now 3 million kW, ten times the original target of 300,000 kW). The Tomen Corporation built twenty 1,000kW wind turbines and began selling electricity in December 1999 to the Hokkaido Electric Power Co. under a 17-year contract. In October 2000 the Electric Power Development Company, Ltd. also started wind power generation in Tomamae, and with a 30,000 kW capacity it was the largest wind farm in Japan. Today however, the largest and first of its kind in Japan — the Shin Izumo Wind Farm located in the Chugoku region with a total output capacity of 78MW was completed. The wind farm consists of 26 state-of-the-art Vestas 3MW wind turbine generators. Each wind turbine generator is mounted on a 75m-high tower and equipped with 44m-long blades. In addition, the Shin Izumo Wind Farm is Eurus Energy’s first project in Chugoku Region. All the power generated by the wind farm serves about 40,000 households and reduces 85,000 tons of CO2 every year. On October 29, Aridagawa Wind Farm the first wind generation project in the Kinki Region was completed. This wind farm stretches about 2 kilometers east to west along the Nagamine Mountain Ridges on the boundaries of Aridagawa Town, Kainan City and Arida City, and consists of ten wind turbines (Siemens, DK), each rated at 1,300 kW. It is capable of supplying about 7,800 households while reducing the carbon footprint by 24,800 tons a year.
It used to be considered that on land, despite being hit by numerous typhoons every year, Japan did not have the kind of wind suitable for power generation. However, following the compilation of a wind map as part of the New Sunshine Project, and 8-year observation data by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) of wind conditions throughout the country it was revealed the country did actually have more than enough wind resources. If wind turbines of 40 meters in diameter (the largest size now in practical operation) were installed in Japan at all suitable sites on land, considering the various obstacles, total power generation would amount to 25 million kW. This amounts to 20 percent of the country’s annual power output today.
Since the power output is proportional to the cube of wind velocity, the site of a wind turbine greatly affects power generation costs. Selecting sites favorable to wind power generation and reducing the construction cost of a wind turbine will help lower the overall power generation cost. Offshore wind power capitalizes the greater availability of space to build and stronger winds found over water than on land. Demand has been growing among power companies to install wind turbines in favorably located ports and harbors, since the wind is stronger and steadier in coastal and offshore areas than inland. Wind turbines have been installed at the Ports of Muroran in Hokkaido, Naoetsu in Niigata Prefecture, Chiba city in Chiba Prefecture, Omaezaki in Shizuoka Prefecture and Tsushi in Hyogo Prefecture and at five other ports, including Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture. But the potential total capacity of wind power generated at ports and harbors has yet to be exploited.
Ports and harbors have many advantages over inland or coastal areas, such as stronger and more constant winds, less concern regarding noise and vibration, and ease of shipping large construction materials. The Ports and Harbors Bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has been encouraging private enterprises and port authorities to introduce wind power generation through measures such as opening up ports and harbors for large-scale commercial wind power generation projects, and broadening support for port authorities to promote wind power generation.
The feasibility of wind turbines has been highlighted as an alternative energy source to the nuclear option, given that the Japanese archipelago has one of the longest coastlines in the world. The best conditions for capturing wind power are deemed to be Pacific Ocean-facing coastlines, being in the temperate zones – and these conditions are satisfied in Japan. Waves are also predictable and waves caused by winds can be predicted five days in advance. Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., Ltd. has recently begun to develop offshore wind farms.
Some experts unofficially estimate, however, that the potential for offshore wind power is over 14 times greater than on land, even under the most pessimistic scenario.
The cost factor: Wind turbines with power output of over 1000 kW benefit from the advantages of scale, and their construction costs are still prohibitively expensive because of they have yet to be mass-produced. However, one-megawatt turbines are expected to increase in number in the near future, so that the construction costs of large 1000 kW turbines will be lowered.
A big problem is that wind energy from a particular turbine or wind farm does not have as consistent an output as fuel-fired power plants. Much power is generated by higher wind speed, and much of the energy comes in short bursts. The intermittancy of wind seldom creates problems if wind power is used to supply a high proportion of total demand of energy to urban cities, because there are additional increased costs in the need to upgrade the grid, and for alternative sources to supplant the shortfall in wind production when wind is not forthcoming. In 2006, the government’s plan to triple wind farms was stalled because Tohoku Electric and Hokkaido Electric Power Companies decided to buy less wind power from the wind power firms, citing reliability and fear of power surges concerns. However, technology solutions appear to have been developed since to deal with this problem. According to Eurus Energy Holdings, their turbine blades are designed to track the wind as it changes its direction in order to capture the maximum amount of wind and that if the wind speed becomes excessively high, the turbine shuts down to avoid danger.
Wind farms are also often objected to on account of their visual impact, but the environmental impact is given greater consideration. As Japan is an important “Flyway” for migratory birds, and wind turbines can cause the deaths of many birds caught in their propellers.
The Wave Power option
Wave power is still in the experimental and R&D stages in Japan. The World’s largest offshore floating wave power device called the Mighty Wave, was launched in July 1998 by the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center and anchored to the bottom of the sea (about 40 m deep) with six mooring lines, designed to withstand typhoon strength wind and waves. It converts wave energy to electricity by using oscillating columns of water to drive air turbines and can be remotely operated from on-shore. The full-scale prototype is being demonstrated and tested at the mouth of Gokasho Bay facing the Pacific Ocean. The Mighty Whale prototype of the Oscillating Water Column is 50 m long and 30 m wide and carries three air turbine generator units: one with a rated output of 50 kW + 10 kW and two of 30 kW. The structure of the Mighty Whale itself can be used as a weather monitoring station, a temporary mooring for small vessels or a recreational fishing platform. As well as generating energy for use on-shore, the Mighty Whale can provide an intermediate energy source for aeration to improve water quality. The energy produced is mostly used by the instruments carried on board; any surplus is used to charge a storage battery or, when this is fully charged, is used by a loading resistor. A safety valve protects the air turbines from stormy weather by shutting off the flow of air if the rotation speed of the turbines exceeds a predetermined level.
The construction of wave farms can displace fishermen from productive fishing grounds, change the pattern of beach sand nourishment.
Wave farms can also present hazards to safe navigation of ships and fishing vessels in the vicinity.
In terms of energy efficiency, of the 2,700 gigawatts produced by wave power, only about 500 gigawatts can be captured with the current technology.
Reviewing the history of Japan’s energy policy, we conclude that Japan chose to diversify its energy sources, including promoting much R&D on alternative renewable energy sources as well as pursuing a nuclear policy since nuclear energy was widely (and still is) considered a green and clean and renewable energy source, in the pursuit of two main goals, to reduce its reliance on crude oil and non-renewable fossil fuels and to achieve its targeted carbon emission reduction goals.
Japan appears to be well-placed technologically to further expand most of renewable sources of energy as alternatives to nuclear power, such as solar, wind and hydropower…because such energy projects have already been in advanced stages of development and operational models are in place. Other options like geothermal and wave power require longer-term development and may not come online for a decade or more.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely, even with intensive development of solar and if all the other alternative energy options were to be pursued, that all of the nuclear power plants could be decommissioned and shut down right away or in the near future. At best, some of the alternative energy projects which have already been either on the drawing board or in the pipeline, can be expected to supplement existing power facilities more and more. Whether more projects will take off, will depend on questions of cost and subsidy funding, taking into account the already austere economic situation of the nation, as well as political will and public backing.
Political will to promote and expand renewable energy sources is particularly important. Just as the government chose to back nuclear industries, nuclear plants were able to proliferate around the nation, in the same way, the use of some energy alternatives can only take off if the government supported via subsidies and other incentives and smoothed the way for their expansion. For other kinds of renewable energy sources, the same kind of political will if demonstrated will allow other options to take off as well.
The current climate of anti-nuclear public sentiment suggests that there is strong impetus and support for the development of other energy alternatives to nuclear energy now. The government has also suggested that it is unlikely to press ahead with the building of 14 new reactors as had been planned on the drawing board. National Policy Minister Koichiro Gemba has proposed a fundamental review of those plans and said that it is impossible to implement those plans in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis. Gemba also stated that renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power, are certain to play a much bigger role in efforts to reconstruct Fukushima Prefecture.
Separately, the press reported that Governor Yuji Kuroiwa held a 90- centimeter (3-foot) solar panel on the streets of Kanagawa prefecture this month as he pledged to install solar panels to support as many as 2 million households. Kanagawa, located south of Tokyo, will “kick off the revolution” to end Japan’s dependency on nuclear power, Kuroiwa said April 11, the day after the former journalist drew twice as many votes as his opponent in the election.
And yet, for alternative renewable energy projects to be viable and to ultimately succeed over the long term, all the challenges and cost and benefits still have to properly studied, environmental impact assessments properly undertaken. Care needs to be taken that in Japan’s haste to boost the Kanto region’s current crunch for energy, that Japan does not rush headlong onto white elephant projects or projects that will become mired in controversy and unintended and unforeseen problems or disastrous consequences.
“Current status and future prospects of geothermal energy use in Japan“, JFS Newsletter No.88 (December 2009)
Gemba calls for review of nuclear power projects (NHK World News, 24 Apr 2011): National Policy Minister Koichiro Gemba has proposed a fundamental review of plans to build more than 14 new nuclear reactors by 2030. // Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Gemba said it is impossible to implement the plans, which are part of the country’s basic energy policy, in the wake of the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. // Gemba also said that renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power, are certain to play a much bigger role in efforts to reconstruct Fukushima Prefecture. Gemba’s home and constituency are in the prefecture.
“Geothermal Energy: Geothermal Power Plants“, New Energy Foundation (retr. 22 Apr, 2011)
“High costs, lack of sites blocking path: Geothermal power generation starts slowing down“, Japan Times, Aug 11, 2006
Japan to focus on next generation biofuels (Japan Biofuels Annual 6/1/2009) / Japan Biofuel Cars / See also APEC BIofuels: Japan Biofuels Activities / Japan starts sales of biofuel made from rice / Japan steps up its biofuel drive (Asia Times Online, Dec 13, 2007) / Japan Airlines Finds Biofuel More Efficient Than Petro-Fuel in Test Flight
Japan’s energy independence to come from “small-scale hydroelectric power generation” (Think Daily, Apr 22, 2011)
“Japan’s nuclear crisis: An opportunity for geothermal energy?” (LA Times, Mar 24, 2011)
Japan’s oil demand could rise or fall (24/7 Wall Street)
Japan’s once powerful nuclear industry is now under siege, Matter Network, Mar 18, 2011 [See also related Landfilling begins at Tanoura; Five in Hunger Strike Against Kaminoseki Nuclear Power Plant ; The Atomic Age » Kaminoseki]
“Japan renews focus on solar power” UPI.com
“Japan taps into power of volcanoes with geothermal energy plants”. The Daily Telegraph (May 1, 2009).
“Silver lining in sight for makers of solar panels“, Japan Times, Apr 22, 2011
“Solar-panel makers may benefit from Japan nuclear fears“, Business Week Apr 20, 2011: “That means Japan will probably step up a campaign to encourage the use of solar cells for years at the expense of atomic power, Takashi Watanabe, a Tokyo-based analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., wrote in an April 1 report. Solar may be the strongest option because of restrictions on where wind and thermoelectric power stations can be built, he said”
National survey report of PV Power applications in Japan 2006 retrieved 16 October 2008
Renewable Energy in Japan JFS (Japan for Sustainability) Newsletter No. 11, July 2003
Small is beautiful in hydroelectric power plant design and good for the environment (Nature, 20, 2010) “the small-scale hydroelectric power plant developed as a model by a team headed by Prof. Peter Rutschmann and Dipl.-Ing. Albert Sepp at the Oskar von Miller-Institut, the TUM research institution for hydraulic and water resources engineering. Their approach incurs very little impact on the landscape. Only a small transformer station is visible on the banks of the river. In place of a large power station building on the riverside, a shaft dug into the riverbed in front of the dam conceals most of the power generation system. The water flows into a box-shaped construction, drives the turbine, and is guided back into the river underneath the dam. This solution has become practical due to the fact that several manufacturers have developed generators that are capable of underwater operation – thereby dispensing with the need for a riverbank power house.” Read more here.
The devastating effects of tsunamis, big hydroelectric dams and other “clean” energies (World Rainforest Movement)
Tomamae is “Japan’s Denmark” and a Mecca for Wind Farms (25 Aug 2002) [See also related links: Wind Turbines of the People, by the People and for the People in Aomori; First Wind Turbine Completed on Tokyo Bay Waterfront]
Volcanic Japan could be geothermal energy leader: US expert, The Independent, May 29, 2010
ONE reason for Japan’s reliance on nuclear power—with all its attendant difficulties of building reactors safely in an earthquake zone—is its lack of indigenous energy sources. Yet it does have one that seems under-exploited, namely the wind. According to a report published in 2009 by the Global Wind Energy Council, Japan, which generates 8.7% of the world’s economic output, has just 1.3% of its capacity to make electricity from the air. The world’s third-largest economy, then, is 13th in the world’s windpower league table.
According to Chuichi Arakawa, a mechanical engineer at the University of Tokyo, that is because Japan has too much of the wrong sort of wind. First, the typhoons which regularly strike the place are simply too powerful. (In 2003, for example, such a storm crippled six turbines on Miyakojima, near Okinawa.) Second, the regular winds that blow through the country are less useful than they might be because Japan is so mountainous. Engineering considerations require that a turbine be erected perpendicular to the Earth, regardless of the slope of the local hillside. But if that ground is, indeed, sloping, it means that the wind (which tends to follow the ground when it is close to the surface) hits the blades of the turbines at an angle instead of face on. That makes the whole process of power generation less efficient.
Help, though, is on the way. Engineers at Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), a large manufacturing company, have come up with a turbine they think can withstand the sort of battering that brought down those on Miyakojima, and also turn the irregular mountain winds to advantage.
The crucial differences between FHI’s new turbine and a traditional one are in the location and setting of the blades. In a traditional turbine the blades are in front of the pole and also of the nacelle—the structure that houses the generator. In addition, the plane of the blades is parallel to the pole, so that a ground-hugging wind hits the blades face on. This is known as an upwind design.
By contrast, FHI has opted for a downwind design, which puts the blades behind both nacelle and pole. This allows the rotor plane to be tilted so that it faces directly into winds blowing up the hill without snagging on the pole. According to Shigeo Yoshida, who is in charge of research for the project, that makes the arrangement 5-8% more efficient in these circumstances than an upwind turbine would be.
As a bonus, the downwind design is less temperamental in high winds. That is because the blades, being behind the pole and at an angle to it, can be given more freedom to yaw about than they would have in an upwind turbine. This puts less strain on them than if they were fixed.
So far, 25 downwind turbines have been constructed in Japan, and dozens more are in the pipeline. Windpower will never, of course, replace the day-in-day-out reliability of nuclear or other thermal forms of electricity generation. But, as Japan has recently been reminded, it is never a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket.
The residential and services sectors are where the waste is, and that is where the conservation ought be. Cutting back the power supply available to Japanese industry would be unnecessary and unwise. There are better places for conservationists to spend their energy.” …
“…the most promising site for new conservation is commercial users (such as office buildings and retailers). Their use is around ten times higher at its peak than at its trough. Lights and air-conditioners account for much if it. Many retailers, including Earth-loving brands like Body Shop, Birkenstock and The Gap, keep their doors wide open during the hot Japanese summer, letting cool air stream onto the sidewalk. The better to lure in sweltering window-shoppers? Regardless, ending this inane practice could save a lot of precious electricity.”