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CLEAN ENERGY

Renewable energy’s future rosy if grids ever get updated

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The March 11, 2011, mega-quake and monster tsunami that set off the Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant meltdowns forced Japan to rethink its nuclear-focused energy policy and explore the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

Almost three years have passed since calamity struck, but has Japan really embraced renewable energy? Following are questions and answers on the current condition of renewable energy:

Has the use of renewable energy increased?

Yes. According to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, Japan saw a significant increase in renewable energy generation capacity after July 2012, when the government required utilities to buy up all clean energy at premium rates under its feed-in tariff system.

Between July 2012 and October 2013, the nation’s renewable energy production capacity rose by 5.85 million kw. Solar power accounted for over 90 percent of the increase, at 5.6 million kw.

The jump in solar generation capacity is quite remarkable, given Japan’s total before July 2012 had been 5.6 million kw.

The generating capacity of a nuclear reactor is about 1 million kw, but while its operating rate, or running time, is about 70 percent, solar panels are dependent on the weather, which limits their average operating rate to about 12 percent.

Reactors can generate power pretty much continuously except when they are shut down for checkups, which before 3/11 took place every 13 months.

So even though solar panels saw a drastic increase in numbers, they did not boost total power generation from renewable energy sources very much. Renewable energy not including hydroelectric power accounted for only 1.6 percent of all power generated in Japan in fiscal 2012.

Large hydroelectric power facilities have been around for a long time, unlike other types of renewable energy showing potential upside for the future.

Why has solar power grown?

The feed-in tariff system has incentivized parties to get into the business.

“I think we can say it’s the only reason,” said Shinichiro Takiguchi, an energy policy expert who is senior manager at the center for the strategy of emergence at the private Japan Research Institute.

Under the feed-in tariff scheme, electric utilities are required to buy all electricity produced by companies and households via solar or other renewable energy sources at fixed rates for a certain number of years.

“The rate for solar power started at a higher price than (many) expected . . . people who were interested in investing in energy all went to solar,” said Takiguchi.

The rates vary depending on the method used and are reviewed every fiscal year.

For the first fiscal year, 2012, utilities were committed to pay large solar power suppliers a fixed rate of ¥42 per kilowatt-hour for 20 years. That rate was seen as lucrative, so many rushed to invest in solar power.

The government dropped the price to ¥37.8 for the second year, but experts said that is still considered somewhat high.

What about other renewable energy sources?

None has grown as much as solar power.

This is because solar panels are easy to set up and generate power in a relatively short time.

It takes just a couple of months to install a solar panel array on a rooftop, and even a mega-solar power facility can be constructed in about a year. A mega-solar facility is defined as one with a generation capacity of at least 1 megawatt.

A large wind farm can take four to five years to build, while a geothermal power plant can take more than 10 years because of all the environmental assessments required.

Will other renewable energy sources grow in the future? Do they have potential?

“I think wind and geothermal are the keys (to spreading renewable energy) as they are more cost-efficient than solar . . . (the investment) trend will be shifting to them, too,” said Takiguchi.

Wind power facilities, including floating wind farms, have huge potential.

The Environment Ministry has estimated that the amount of offshore wind energy that can be potentially generated in Japan is 1.6 billion kw, 10 times that of solar power and 100 times that of thermal.

Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara has said the government plans to increase the generation capacity of floating wind farms to 1 million kw, or more than 40 times Japan’s current level.

As for geothermal power, Japan has the world’s third-biggest potential for output at 23.4 million kw, after the U.S. and Indonesia, according to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

What hurdles do those energy sources have to surmount?

Takiguchi pointed to the critical issue of power grids.

Places suitable for wind and geothermal power production tend to be rural, but power grids — the networks of high-transmission cables by which electricity is distributed through a region — are not yet fully developed and lack the capacity to transmit the vast power being generated by wind farms.

“This lack of power grids is a problem for all kinds of renewable energy sources,” he said.

Many places suitable for wind and geothermal power generation are in Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, whose power grids tend to lack the capacity to distribute all that clean power.

Also, the environment assessments necessary to approve the construction of these facilities take three to four years, although the government is looking to shorten the process.

Will renewable energy be able to completely replace nuclear power eventually?

Takiguchi said that if Japan keeps increasing the use of renewable energy, it will be possible in the future to surpass what the reactors are providing — at a cost.

The feed-in tariff system is designed to boost the ratio of renewable energy in the energy mix, but since utilities are required to buy power at premium prices, they are entitled to pass that cost on to the consumer.

So consumers will probably see their electricity bills rise as renewable energy climbs.

The feed-in tariff system effectively caused the average household electricity rate to rise by ¥87 a month in fiscal 2012, but that was expected to rise to ¥120 per month in fiscal 2013.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .

  • Sam Gilman

    This is a pretty good article. It addresses the difference between headline figures (5GW capacity!! Replaces 10 nuclear reactors!!!) with actual output figures, and shows one of the fundamental problems in trying to use solar power as a major source of electricity. It’s also good to mention the vital task of building out a super grid that can balance highly variable energy flows from intermittent sources like renewables. And the article is good at confronting the cost issue: as Germany has seen, the economics of electricity mean that simply looking at the unit cost per kWh of electricity from individual sources does not give us a complete picture of how expensive it can be to increase the grid penetration of renewables.

    If I could gripe at a couple of things: although it’s correct to say that wind is a better bet for Japan on current technology, it’s still difficult to get a renewables-based system to mimic the “always on” aspect of nuclear, hydro or fossil fuel electricity production, so simple Watt for Watt comparisons need to be treated with caution. Also, the article could be clearer that geothermal potential represents a small proportion of our electricity demand. It’s useful, but not a potentially major source of low co2 energy.

    But in general, a welcome statement of the realities of post-fossil electricity production, compared to frequent vague promises of easy green transitions.