Nuclear-averse Tohoku good place to grow green energy but Japan must be on the same circuit

by

Kyodo

Japan has seen a heavy shift in electricity generation from atomic to renewable sources ever since the Great East Japan Earthquake tipped the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into a triple meltdown.

But five years after the catastrophe, Japanese and U.S. experts are pointing out major issues that need addressing to allow renewable energy to further flourish in the country and accelerate the recovery of disaster-stricken Tohoku.

Green energy, they argue, will help bolster the region by creating related jobs via wind farm projects, enticements such as community benefit programs, and potential new industries related to energy technologies.

In Fukushima Prefecture, a support program to revitalize local economies through clean energy technologies has been underway, with a national research institute providing technical support for companies in the Tohoku region.

“The program shows companies that renewable energy involves collective technologies in a variety of fields, which are used in the production of devices and parts,” said Yoshiro Owadano, director-general at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology’s Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute. “Companies really appreciate the merit of this scheme,” he said.

So far, 33 companies have received support through the program in 63 cases. Three companies — Asahi Denshi Co., Nippon Kernel System Co. and Nippon Kasei Chemical Co. — have commercialized their products.

Asahi Denshi, based in Date, has commercialized a solar cell string monitoring system dubbed Neoale (New Optimizer for Alternative Energy), a device that measures the current and voltage of solar panels and detects abnormalities.

The institute evaluates and fosters companies’ ideas and technology-driven solutions and provides feedback for commercialization. Asahi Denshi’s device was proven durable after a long-term evaluation.

“Sixty-three cases in 2½ years were more than we expected,” Owadano said, adding that it is difficult to gauge the economic impact of the program.

Owadano still believes renewable energy has a long way to go despite the momentum behind it in Japan and the world. The Paris climate change conference in December signaled the world’s departure from dependence on fossil fuels because of concerns about climate change.

Last year, the world saw a $329.3 billion global investment in clean energy, a record and up 4 percent from a year earlier, driven by investment in China, Africa, the United States and elsewhere, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Japan observed investment growth of 3 percent to $43.6 billion, according to BNEF, but some experts believe Japan has not exploited its potential.

Michael Garland, president and chief executive officer of the U.S.-based Pattern Energy Group Inc., pointed out that the decades-old limitations inherent in Japan’s divided electricity transmission system are notable barriers preventing renewable energy from spreading.

He said it is important to “encourage the utilities to improve the area of connections between each other’s district service areas.”

He also talked about a lack of efficiency in approval processes and land limitations for renewable energy projects, while recommending a neutral party oversee guidelines for utilities requesting output cuts by green energy producers.

Reduction of output can typically be imposed due to transmission congestion or the lack of transmission access for generated power, as well as in times of excess power generation.

Transmission upgrades, batteries and hydrogen energy carriers, which are produced using renewable energy and can be utilized for running co-generation engines and gas turbines, are potential ways to stabilize power output of such renewable energy as wind and solar power that depend on the weather, according to Owadano and others.

Citing examples in the United States, Garland pointed out that the recent spread of renewable energy has paid off for a variety of investors, and that there are benefits for customers and utilities as well as for society at large because of cleaner air.

“We believe the same win-win situation can apply to Japan,” Garland told reporters. “You can increase the diversity of power supply and reduce dependence on imported fuels.”

Japan’s primary energy self-sufficiency rate is only around 6 percent, meaning it is vulnerable to external factors such as political uncertainty in the Middle East. The central government plans to increase the rate to approximately 24.3 percent by fiscal 2030.

In its primary energy supply structure outlook, renewable energy will account for 13 to 14 percent.

Garland believes that utilities, power generators and customers will benefit from driving down the cost of renewable energy once the well-known factors constraining its spread are resolved.

“Over time, I think you will see, just like (in) the United States, substantial reduction in the cost for renewables,” said Garland.

Green Power Investment Corp. Executive Vice President Mark Anderson agreed with that assessment, saying, “The (main) reason why we are here is we think there’s an opportunity to utilize our expertise and experience gained abroad to reduce the cost of wind power in Japan.”

The Tokyo-based company, of which Pattern Energy has acquired a majority stake, plans to start wind farms in the Tohoku region — a 125,400-kw project in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, and a 200,000-kw project in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture — among other endeavors in Japan and abroad.

Referring to the projects in Tohoku, Anderson said, “It’s very important for local communities because local communities will benefit from construction jobs and the property taxes that we will start paying going forward.”