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A woman of wisdom among the energy mandarins

by Stephen Hesse

Ask me who should facilitate Japan’s energy dialogue and the choice is easy: Junko Edahiro.

Edahiro is a highly accomplished author, interpreter, translator, environmental journalist, policy consultant and cross-sector networker. She is also the inspiration behind several of Japan’s top environmental information networks, including Japan for Sustainability (www.japanfs.org).

Earlier this month, I spoke with Edahiro, 49, about Japan’s energy future, a topic she is uniquely positioned to understand because she is on two of three committees now advising the government in this very area. The three panels cover nuclear power, Japan’s energy mix, and how to deal with climate change. Edahiro is on the latter two.

When I noted to her that the three themes overlap, and ought to be combined, Edahiro’s face broke into a gentle, knowing smile — one I would see often during our talk. This is one of the problems, she explained, because the government often takes a fragmented, “silo approach.” Here are some highlights from our conversation.

The present, Diet-approved Basic Energy Plan calls for Japan to get more than 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power by 2030. Will this change now?

After Fukushima (the meltdowns of three reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011), then Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered the government and ministers to come up with a new Basic Energy Plan from scratch, and this phrase, “from scratch,” is very important. It means they do not have to think about past or current scenarios.

The government is in such flux, is policy change possible?

A new Basic Energy Plan is supposed to be released by summer, so I hope the Cabinet will not change before that. Our committee is creating input for Yukio Edano (who heads the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry [METI]), but there are many different opinions on the committee. But with our input, Edano will create a proposal for the prime minister — and he will decide the new Basic Plan.

Before Fukushima, about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear power, and in the Basic Energy Plan for 2030 that was to rise to over 50 percent. So our committee is discussing the percentage of nuclear power for the new Basic Energy Plan.

My preference is to reduce from 30 percent, but some say we should reduce from 50 percent, which could end up being an increase from 30 percent. Our schedule is to come up with some energy-mix options that will be shared in a dialogue with the public between April and May.

Is a dialogue between citizens and government possible?

The problem is that no one knows how to manage such a dialogue. We are discussing the energy-mix options in the committee, and if we can pick out two or three then we can have discussions with citizens.

In the past, every time an energy plan was formulated it was said to be important to have a dialogue with the people — but actually, they held one-way explanation meetings at four or five places in Japan. That was it. We need to have real dialogue.

What are some other issues to consider related to nuclear power in Japan?

In Japan, nuclear power has long been a de facto national policy, so the government is still enthusiastic about nuclear power in many respects — even after Fukushima.

Also, the power industries are very strong in every regard, especially in the countryside, where they are the center of local economies through government subsidies. But feed-in tariffs are also included in this current plan, which is good.

Feed-in tariffs would open Japan’s energy market to new sources and providers. Will Japan adopt a smart-grid system to provide more efficient, cheaper energy?

A smart grid (an electricity distribution system that efficiently controls supply and demand by monitoring production and consumption from both traditional and renewable sources) is a main policy aim for all the agencies and ministries.

At the governmental level, they are trying to pursue and promote smart-grid technologies and communities. At the industrial and company level, too, there is a huge movement and a lot of competition to come up with smart-grid technologies.

But before Fukushima, the power industry was not in favor of a smart grid, because if there is one, other parties can join and compete as independent power producers.

It is interesting because Japanese firms such as Panasonic, Toshiba and Hitachi are developing smart-grid technologies — but they first went to other countries, including the United States and in Europe, for testing and demonstrations. I was told this was because they didn’t want to upset the powerful energy companies in Japan. Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant) is also investing in smart grids and testing its technologies in the U.S.

That’s ironic.

I think some Tepco people believe Japan will have a smart grid in the future, but if they do demonstrations here it will send an unwelcome signal. They want to keep their Japanese market intact as long as possible, though they believe that, in the end, they will have to be part of such a grid. So they need some of the applicable technologies.

I think Tepco is sticking to nuclear power because it’s Japan’s national policy, but around 2000 it created a separate company, called Japan Natural Energy Co., to develop renewable energies.

So Tepco sees the writing on the wall.

Japan’s power companies have made a huge investment in nuclear power, and this is one reason they are opposing change.

Japan is not an open market for electricity, except for large users, such as industries, and there was a big battle between the power companies and the government, through METI, over liberalizing the market. Some METI officials tried to open up the market, but they were eventually kicked out of METI because the power companies are so strong.

How can Japan’s energy debate be made more democratic?

I have made two proposals to the secretariat of the Basic Energy Plan Committee.

First, if you take a look at the Japanese population as a whole, 51 percent are women — but if you look at the 25 members of this committee, only 16 percent are women, four out of 25. I pointed this out and asked for more women’s voices on the committee.

Regarding the second proposal, in Japan, people over 60 make up 30 percent of the population — but in our committee, 64 percent of the members are over 60. Also, in Japan the percentage of people under 39 is 40 percent — but on the committee there is no one under 39. So I proposed that we have more young people represented.

In the meetings of the Basic Energy Plan Committee, most of the men focus on cost, efficiency, jobs and global competitiveness, and of course these are important.

But when I talk to women and young people, they have very different concerns — for example, responsibility for future generations, ethics, and choices.

What was the secretariat’s response to your proposals?

Both were rejected. So I held discussions with groups of women and young people and invited the secretariat staff to observe. I also made a report to the committee and Edano, who gave me encouraging comments. Now the secretariat is considering how to organize larger-scale dialogues with citizens.

The media seems to be supporting nuclear power. What do you think?

Before Fukushima, I think many media came out intentionally against renewable energy sources, because if you are for them then you are against nuclear, which has been very important for many people.

But after Fukushima, several newspapers, including the Asahi Shimbun, officially changed their positions and came out against nuclear power. But the Yomiuri and Sankei Shimbun are still supporting nuclear power.

What change would you like to see in media coverage?

The important point is that we need two time horizons — one short-term, looking at what we need to do now. In that sense nuclear power may be necessary, which is what industry people are focusing on. But we also need a long-term perspective. In 30 or 50 years will we still need nuclear power or can we replace it? So the media is guilty of focusing on the short-term horizon only.

What are the arguments for keeping nuclear power in the long term?

Fukushima has shown that it is neither safe nor cheap. Now other, deeper, reasons for nuclear power are surfacing. One argument is that Japan needs nuclear power to develop Japan’s capacity for research and development in the fields of nuclear science and technology.

Is this focused on commercial potential or nuclear weapons potential?

That is a very important point.

Of course no one will say openly that we have to retain the potential for nuclear weapons, but some people say that we should retain “nuclear deterrent power.”

So there are two opinions: one supporting pure science and technology, with many people believing that nuclear science and technology is a cornerstone of maintaining science; and a second saying that we need to have nuclear power for deterrence.

Geologically, Japan may be the most dangerous country in the world in which to generate nuclear power. What is your sense of the potential for renewables?

Since the government decided to adopt the feed-in tariff system (effective July 2012), there has been a huge movement within the manufacturing sector to invest in renewables. Both new and old firms are now developing renewables divisions for wind turbines, solar panels and other technologies.

Also, large consumers of electricity — companies and factories — are seeking their own energy sources to ensure power stability and for self-defense against price hikes the power companies have threatened.

Municipalities, too — including some wards in Tokyo and cities in the Kanto region, such as Mitaka and Fuchu — have decided to switch from Tepco to independent power producers and suppliers for their city halls, schools and so on.

Do you think that Japan can produce enough energy from renewables?

Before we think about the power mix, we have to think about how much energy we need. In the past, the government used GDP (Gross Dometic Product) growth projections to come up with the expected power demand, and then used this to decide the power mix.

Our committee is focusing on the mix, but we should consider energy needs first.

Current government projections say that by 2030 Japan will have a GDP 1.4 times larger than today’s GDP. Of course, to support that scale of an economy we would need close to 1.4 times more energy — and it will be very difficult to supply this from renewables. But many people say that kind of GDP growth is not feasible for Japan.

There hasn’t been that kind of growth in Japan in decades, has there?

In the past 10 years Japan’s GDP has grown overall by only 0.6 percent, and now we have a shrinking working population and an aging society — so we need realistic GDP projections. At the same time, we need to think about lifestyle changes and values changes. We don’t need to have more energy to be happier. We have to think about these changes, and then we can think about the composition of our power mix.

What is your recommendation for Japan’s energy future?

My proposal is based on a supposition that, by 2030, Japan’s GDP will be unchanged. For the past 10 years we have had only 0.6 percent growth in total, and in the coming 10 to 20 years — with a falling population — an unchanged GDP is best.

Assuming energy demand is the same, the power mix should begin with a cut of around 20 percent in power use through energy saving — “nega-watts,” so to speak. Then 30 to 40 percent should come from renewables. For the remainder, we would have to rely on fossil fuels, mainly natural gas.

Any final thoughts on nuclear power?

We have talked about nuclear accidents, the costs and other issues, but the real problem is the waste. There is no way to deal with nuclear waste in a reasonable way. Unless we have a feasible solution for the waste, we cannot have nuclear power.

Even now, our reactors are generating nuclear waste — and we still have no safe system for managing that waste in Japan.

Stephen Hesse can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com.