Words from the wise on our energy future

by Stephen Hesse

Special To The Japan Times

Another year has dawned, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been at the helm for more than two years and nearly four years have passed since the Fukushima disaster brought Japan to its knees. And still we wait for a realistic blueprint from the government for clean and safe energy independence, a plan offering residents hope, confidence and pride.

Looking for answers, I spoke with three respected commentators who have observed energy and environment issues in Japan for decades: Earth Policy Institute President Lester Brown, Tokyo City University professor Junko Edahiro and naturalist and author C.W. Nicol.

My questions focused on the country’s energy future, including what role nuclear power should play, what renewable energy options look promising and what else needs to be considered.

I didn’t expect much support for nuclear power in Japan, and I was right.

“My inclination would be to put nuclear power in the past and concentrate on developing renewable resources,” Brown says by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.

Edahiro and Nicol, both residents of Japan, are more adamant.

“I strongly believe that we should not use nuclear energy,” Edahiro says. “Do you know how many earthquakes have occurred in Japan with more than 100 deaths since the great 1924 Kanto Earthquake left 142,800 dead and missing? Fifteen. On average, one every nine years.

“A recent government report announced that 73.7 percent of Japan’s population lives in areas with risk of great damage due to floods, mudslides, earthquakes, land liquefaction or tsunami. This means that there is no safe land for nuclear power plants in Japan. And even if no earthquakes or accidents hit nuclear power plants, an unresolved problem is how to deal with nuclear wastes.”

Nicol, who has spent considerable time in Tohoku since the March 2011 disaster, is outraged by the idea of restarting nuclear reactors.

“Having seen the wasteland that was once Fukushima and having been told that it would be wise not to use venison or wild boar from the Karuizawa area, and knowing that one power plant continues to leak radioactive water into the ocean, how the hell can anybody try to pretend that this stuff is for the benefit of the nation or the people?” Nicol says. “My friend showed me photographs he took in Fukushima of thousands of big plastic bags stored outside, containing radioactive soil. There were clear notices on these big blue-sheet bags that said the material would decay if left in the sun. They are all outside. They are beginning to fall to pieces.”

Edahiro and Nicol both believe energy conservation is key to avoid a return to nuclear power. “Surely waste of energy is a huge factor,” Nicol says.

Edahiro, who has spent years studying energy in Japan and has served on several government policy commissions, believes that demographics, conservation and modernization are all essential considerations.

“Before talking about energy ‘generation,’ we should talk about how much energy we need in Japan with shrinking population and saturated demand. In my opinion, Japan can live with much less energy than calculated by the government, which believes in (or wishes for) everlasting GDP increases,” she says. “Secondly, we should promote more energy saving across sectors. Japan has been far behind EU countries in terms of energy standards for houses and buildings.”

All three commentators are strongly in favor of renewable energy, with Brown and Edahiro seeing solar and wind as the most promising. Hydrogen, on the other hand, received poor reviews.

“Hydrogen can be a good energy carrier but we have to see how soon it can be used in meaningful quantity to reduce CO2 emissions,” Edahiro says. “It should not be seen as a ‘knight on a white horse.'”

Brown was even less optimistic.

“I think hydrogen is history,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to be able to compete with new technologies. Fifteen years ago I would have said that hydrogen is going to play an important role. Today I don’t think so. Other technologies are moving so fast.”

Of all renewables, Brown believes solar power will be “by far the biggest winner.”

“The great thing about solar is that the rooftops are already there and they are unused,” he says. “Also, in some parts of the world the cost of electricity from rooftop solar panels is now only one half the cost of electricity from local power utilities. Simply for economic reasons, more and more families and industries are putting solar panels on rooftops. These panels can also be hooked up with a battery that will enable them to recharge electric cars.”

Edahiro is bullish on solar and wind, and is convinced that renewables are the only feasible and desirable domestic energy options. “Solar power combined with agriculture is one of the promising energy and food generation systems. Another promising renewable energy source is offshore floating wind farms,” she says.

Nicol, too, wants to see solar combined with food production and wind power.

“Naysayers claim wind and solar are unreliable, but look at countries like Denmark or Holland who use such power,” he says. “We now have solar panels that can go over viable vegetable fields and paddies. It would seem to me that the more progress we make in storing energy the better.”

Citing statistics from his new book out this spring, “The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy,” Brown notes that Denmark is now producing more than 50 percent of its electricity from wind.

An interesting indicator for Brown is what the billionaires are doing.

“Look at Ted Turner and Warren Buffet,” he says. “They are plowing billions into solar and wind. The smart money is moving in this direction. These guys know the market, that’s why they’re billionaires.”

All three also mentioned geothermal.

Noting that Iceland heats buildings with geothermal hot water, Nicol thinks Japan could do the same. “This is the land of the onsen, after all,” he says.

Brown thinks geothermal will have a role, but is still convinced that solar will be the big winner. “Geothermal will have a role,” he says, “but as a general matter I don’t think it will be anywhere near solar, which I think will be the big winner.”

Nicol touches on other energy options, including biomass byproducts from forestry and biogas from sewage and other organic waste, which can also be tapped for phosphates, the mainstay of agricultural fertilizers.

However, finding new sources of energy is not the only challenge. Japan needs major policy changes, Edahiro says.

“The problem we have is not a lack of technologies, public awareness or economic incentives,” she says. “The obstacles are old-fashioned ways of thinking and vested interests. In other advanced nations, such as the EU, the distinction between base-load electricity and nonbase-load electricity is gone thanks to advanced energy demand-supply harmonization technologies involving grid design and weather forecasts. But in Japan, government, industries and experts still argue that we need nuclear energy to provide base-load electricity. Technologies in such fields have not advanced in Japan.”

And so, while the country’s “nuclear village” of politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders continue pressing nuclear power upon residents, other developed nations are striding ahead with new technologies, new transmission grids and with renewed determination.

Clean and safe energy independence is at hand, Mr. Abe, but first you need to begin talking to the right people. Brown, Edahiro and Nicol would be a fine place to start.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University.