Japan could be left behind in renewable energy innovation unless it creates a large domestic market in this field, Ashley Seager, economics correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, warned in the May 23 symposium.
While nuclear power has been touted here as a clean source of energy in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and subsidized for many years, Japan “does not seem to want to give any boost — at least in the short term — to renewable energy,” he said.
A decade ago, Seager said, many people expected Japan to dominate every aspect of renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and wind-power generation.
Today, Japan’s use of renewable energy remains extremely low, accounting for a mere 1.3 percent of its total energy production, he said. Tokyo plans to increase that ratio to 1.6 percent by 2014 — a goal surprisingly unambitious for a country so heavily dependent on oil imports and so technologically advanced, he added.
Britain is also lagging behind other European countries, he noted. It produces only 2 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and a plan being debated to increase the figure to 5 percent by 2020 pales in comparison with the situation in countries such as Germany, which generates 8.5 percent of its energy from renewables and aims to boost that figure to more than 20 percent by 2020, he said.
Japan, home to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol against global warming, is struggling to meet the treaty obligation to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent from the 1990 level during the 2008-2012 period.
The United States, the world’s largest emitter, has pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. But even the U.S. caught up with Japan in the use of solar photovoltaics (PVs) last year and is set to surpass Japan this year, Seager pointed out.
And as for wind-power generation, the U.S. last year fitted wind turbines with a total capacity of 5.2 gigawatts — 38 times as much as Japan did, he said.
What does the situation mean for Japanese makers of solar panels and wind turbines? “Ten years ago, Sharp was easily the world’s biggest maker of PVs and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was the world’s biggest wind turbine maker,” he said.
Today, the world leader in solar-cell production is Germany’s Q-Cells, which was established as recently as 1999, and Sharp was been pushed to second place, Seager noted. Japan has slipped to 14th place in the world ranking on wind-power installations, and Japanese firms like Mitsubishi Heavy still make wind turbines but 80 percent of their production is made outside of Japan, he added.
Innovation in renewable energies is not just about technology or products but also about policies to promote their use, he said.
Countries where the use of renewable energy has increased have adopted a mechanism called feed-in tariff, which guarantees an above-market price for a certain period of time and gives businesses the certainty to plan for a certain volume of production, Seager said.
Japan has adopted a system much like that of Britain called renewable portfolio standard (RPS), obliging power companies to buy a certain amount of renewable energy. The system “has not worked in Britain and is not working here,” he said.
“Today, there are feed-in tariffs across most of Europe, and that’s where the action is . . . Spending on research and development on renewables has surged in countries that have feed-in tariff, with costs falling as a result,” he said.
“Does it matter for Japanese firms? As long as you’re making the goods and selling them (overseas), then perhaps it doesn’t,” Seager said. “(But) innovation must definitely be suffering from the lack of a big domestic market. Without a big domestic market, the future Google of renewable energy is unlikely to come from Japan.”