Abe plan lifts renewables at utilities’ expense

Power companies fear government will weaken monopoly after July election

by Chisaki Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Inajima

Bloomberg

Shinzo Abe’s pledge to spur ¥30 trillion of investment in Japan’s electricity industry opens the way for a surge in clean energy projects at the expense of traditional utilities.

The prime minister endorsed proposals to deregulate an industry that produces power mostly from fossil fuels, as well as to boost competition among generators and make it easier for wind and solar energy to be distributed to consumers. His speech Wednesday in Tokyo didn’t mention restarting nuclear reactors idled since the earthquake-tsunami disaster in 2011.

Utility shares in Japan tumbled, led by Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the plant in Fukushima that suffered three meltdowns after the earthquake-tsunami double-punch two years ago.

Abe’s remarks raise the chances the government will move to weaken the monopoly power producers now enjoy after the July Upper House election. That would benefit Marubeni Corp. and Softbank Corp., both of which are planning renewable energy investments.

“His push to liberalize power markets is a bold attempt to increase competition and bring in new market players,” said Nathaniel Bullard, an industry analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Hong Kong.

Abe said in the speech: “For 60 years after the war, one giant power company in each region has dominated from power generation to transmission to retail. The times are changing. We are in the age where consumers themselves produce power.”

He discussed the emergence of fuel cells and power storage batteries and the “need to create more innovation” that would use those technologies to help integrate variable supplies of renewable energy into the transmission grid.

He said he “will bring about the potential for such innovations” by “unbundling transmission and distribution” — two businesses that currently are mostly integrated at utilities.

To be sure, Japan has made four previous attempts to restructure its electric utility industry, which has remained little changed since World War II, according a panel that advised the government in February. It was led by Motoshige Itoh, an economics professor at the University of Tokyo.

Abe also indicated coal would benefit from his policy, with the nation funding cutting-edge coal-fired power plants at home with technology that can be exported.

The Fukushima nuclear crisis that started in March 2011 led to an outcry among voters and the halt of all but two of the nation’s reactors, changing the government’s stance on energy policy to shift the nation toward cleaner sources of energy. More than 70 percent of respondents in an opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun in February said Japan should scrap atomic power.

The government wants to pass the power reforms bill, which has been submitted to the Diet, “by all possible means,” Abe said. Investment in wind, geothermal and other renewable sources will be accelerated by “drastically” speeding up environmental assessment processes, he added.

His speech was short on detail, since the government is working on a review of its energy policy due later this year. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which came to power in December, is seeking to consolidate its grip on power in the July 21 Upper House poll.

The suggestion that Abe is moving to restructure the power generation business is a threat to the utilities, which were hoping the government would allow them to restart their nuclear plants.

All except two of Japan’s 50 reactors remain offline. When they were all running, they provided more than a quarter of the nation’s electricity.

Instead, Abe signaled his support for the recommendations of the government advisory panel, which in February said ministers should push utilities to spin off their distribution networks. Japan’s 10 regional power companies own more than 70 percent of the nation’s generation capacity and control transmission and distribution networks.

One result is average power prices twice as high as in the U.S. Japan’s households paid 23.2 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010, compared with 11.6 cents in the U.S., the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry said in a November 2012 report.

Since the Fukushima crisis started, fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas have replaced nuclear power, driving up Japan’s trade deficit and making it more difficult for the nation to reduce the pollution blamed for global warming. Japan’s previous administration said it wouldn’t sign on to the next round of worldwide emissions curbs under the Kyoto Protocol.

Abe said renewables such as wind and geothermal may be part of the solution, giving environmental campaigners hope that clean energy technology will get a boost. Japan is forecast to rival China as the world’s biggest market for solar power this year, boosting sales for panel manufacturers such as Canadian Solar Inc. and Sharp Corp. Marubeni is pushing to revive long-dormant geothermal drilling projects in Japan.

“Unless Japan pushes through power industry reform, the country won’t have the ground to develop clean energy,” said Masako Konishi, climate and energy project leader for the environmental group WWF Japan.

The ¥30 trillion in investment in the power industry as outlined by Abe will take place over the next 10 years and represents a 50 percent increase from levels in the past decade. No details were provided on where the money will be spent or how much of the investments will go to clean energy.

Masayoshi Son’s Softbank may also benefit, since the company has pledged to invest as much as ¥20 billion with investors in renewable energy project. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., Mizuho Financial Group Inc. and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. expect Japan’s solar market to be worth as much as ¥1.8 trillion in the next three years, spurring the institutions to write loans for developers.

Abe’s target may include investment in storage batteries, said Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation. Japan has been promoting the development of storage batteries to help stabilize power generation that depends on the sun shining and wind blowing.

“Rather than storage batteries that are still expensive, we need to invest in new transmission lines to strengthen power infrastructure,” Ohbayashi said.

A pillar of power industry reform is the establishment of an independent system operator for power grids, said Hiroshi Takahashi, a senior fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute.

Setting up such an institution will help control the demand and supply of power, which in turn can help expand the market for clean energy, he said Tuesday. Takahashi sat on the government-appointed committee that recommended the reform earlier this year.

Japan aims to capture a total ¥26 trillion worth of energy technology sales home and abroad by 2020, from the current ¥8 trillion, according to a draft strategy paper released by the Industrial Competitiveness Council after Abe’s speech.

Japan will further strengthen areas the country excels in so that investment in renewable energy will not weaken the economy, but instead strengthen it, according to the document.

Japan intends to become the first country to commercialize floating offshore wind power technology by around 2018, according to a timetable also released by the council. As for solar, the country aims to lower the generation cost to less than ¥7 per kwh after 2030 from more than ¥30 currently, according to the timetable.

Reform, without specific commitments and targets for renewables, may not be enough, WWF Japan’s Konishi said.

“It’s possible to set ambitious targets for renewable energy and energy saving without setting targets for nuclear,” Konishi said. “Such targets will have an impact on investment by companies.”

  • nobuo takamura

    I think a lingering idea of Japan’s is quite peculiar to or characteristic of Japan or Orientals. Japan tends to think in spirals or rotation, not in revolutions or evolution. They are afraid of being spun out of the world. They too often stop to think again, only to go back to where they are. In the 1960′s Prime Minister Ikeda touted a double income policy. PM Abe wants to do it again without any specific steps in details. His views are likely to be unenlightened to me.

  • zer0_0zor0

    I can support that.

    Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that such a move should have been made 20 years ago, and the dinosaur plant at Fukushima refurbished…

    At any rate, nanotech is starting to have an impact in the solar field, and if Japan can integrate those developments into its already leading edge cell technology, those old utilities will become obsolete and energy imports curtailed.

  • Free Eagle

    God Bless Abe and Japan for spearheading the Revolution!