Could natural gas be key to Kyoto target?

Hunt for alternative to coal moves on from nuclear reactor ambitions

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Japan has long perceived nuclear power as the answer to meeting its greenhouse gas emissions reduction obligations under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to curb global warming.

This is because the carbon dioxide released through electricity generation and consumption accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s total emissions of the gas.

Yet factors such as local opposition and relatively slack growth in electricity demand have delayed the construction of new nuclear reactors, jeopardizing the government’s carefully crafted plans to meet its Kyoto Protocol target of trimming emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

The government now says that only four new reactors are likely to be built by fiscal 2010, whereas previous projections had put the figure at as many as 13.

This scenario will probably lead to a rise in thermal power generation using fossil fuels, boosting carbon dioxide emissions by an additional 20 million to 30 million tons by fiscal 2010, according to government data.

In an effort to counteract this, the Environment Ministry proposed in April that Japan produce thermal energy by making better use of natural gas, which releases 40 percent less carbon dioxide than coal.

Yoshiteru Sakaguchi, assistant head of the ministry’s Climate Change Policy Division, said that 19.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions can be cut by fiscal 2010 if the operation rate of natural gas thermal power plants is raised from the current 50.3 percent to 59.3 percent and that of power plants powered by coal is cut from the current 64.3 percent to 50.1 percent.

“In Japan, nuclear power and coal thermal power plants operate around the clock” as core power suppliers, Sakaguchi explained. “But in Britain, it is the natural gas thermal power plants that operate all day.”

Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions dropped 7 percent in 2000 compared with 1990 levels, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Sakaguchi said this decline was helped by the greater role played by gas.

However, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry suggested earlier this month that the expected shortfall in emissions cuts should be covered by improving the operation rate of existing nuclear reactors by shortening the period in which operations are halted for regular inspections.

“Power companies say the plan is feasible, and we hope they can limit an increase in (carbon dioxide) emissions” through this measure, said Yushi Inoue, an official at the General Policy Division of METI’S Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

Inoue added that a ministry panel is expected to compile an interim report on Japan’s energy policy that will be made available to the public for feedback purposes in July.

However, many nongovernmental organizations argue that nuclear power, while helping to cut greenhouse gas emissions, poses other threats to the environment. They also insist that renewable energy sources such as wind and the sun are viable if appropriate steps are taken.

Tadahiro Katsuta of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a Tokyo-based NGO, criticized the utilities’ plan to shorten inspection periods at reactors, saying this could increase the chances of accidents.

While many NGOs support the idea of using more natural gas, however, the biggest hurdle for such a policy shift is the cost involved.

According to Sakaguchi of the Environment Ministry, the price of natural gas is some 28,600 yen per ton, much higher than that of coal, which stands at some 4,900 yen.

If this is shouldered by consumers, they would have to pay 0.25 yen more per kwh of electricity, raising the electricity bill for the average four-member household by about 200 yen a month, he added.

Nevertheless, Masaru Hirata, professor of the Shibaura Institute of Technology and chairman of the Environment Ministry’s panel on technologies for tackling global warming, supports the ministry’s idea of promoting natural gas use.

“The shift to natural gas is inevitable,” as it emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels and deposits are still abundant, he said.

Hirata also proposed that every house be equipped with a fuel cell system that uses hydrogen made from natural gas or water to generate electricity and heat.

The professor said gas firms and electric appliance makers are currently in the final stages of developing a fuel cell system for households, which they expect to start marketing early next year.

To promote such a system, however, it would be necessary to construct a pipeline network throughout Japan to provide gas directly from Siberia, he said, adding that construction could cost between 2 trillion yen and 3 trillion yen.

Not surprisingly, electricity firms object to calls for more dependence on natural gas. Hiroaki Kobayashi, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies, said he opposes the Environment Ministry’s plan from the perspective of securing a stable energy supply.

“I believe the current ratio of energy sources is the best mix,” Kobayashi said.

Of the total electricity generated in 2002, nuclear power accounted for 31 percent, natural gas 27 percent, coal 22 percent and crude oil and hydroelectric power 9 percent each, according to the federation.

Power from renewable energy sources such as the sun and wind accounted for 0.3 percent of total electricity, according to METI.

Kobayashi argued that the government should continue to regard nuclear power as a core energy source because it is clean and exemplary in terms of economy and supply.

But Katsuta of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center said nuclear power, which creates a huge amount of radioactive waste, is not clean energy. He also pointed out that hot waste water dumped into the sea from nuclear reactors destroys marine ecosystems.

“The waste from nuclear power generation is negative property that will be passed on to future generations,” he said.

As for renewable energy sources, Kobayashi of the electric power federation claimed that they were unlikely to play a major role in electricity generation as their output changes in accordance with the weather.

Yet Mika Obayashi, deputy director of the Tokyo-based NGO Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, said these resources could be reliable if appropriate systems were introduced and they were coupled with an increase in power generated from natural gas.

As in the case of natural gas, however, a major reason why renewable energy is not popular is its high cost.

A law compelling utilities to increase the percentage of power they draw from renewable energy sources by generating or buying such power took effect in April 2003. It aims to boost the use of electricity generated from renewable resources to 1.35 percent of total electricity supply by fiscal 2010.

But Koichiro Kani, director of secretariat of the Japan Wind Power Association, said that, contrary to its aim, the law is actually preventing the promotion of renewable energy because the amount of electricity utilities are obliged to purchase is too small.

Japan needs a regulatory system under which utilities are required to purchase all electricity generated from renewable sources at fixed prices, Kani said, noting that schemes of this kind were effective in countries such as Germany and Denmark, where use of wind-generated electricity has risen.

“Wind power suppliers are currently at a loss because they cannot sell the electricity they produce,” he said.