Four regional utilities stopped signing contracts to buy renewable energy from big solar power plants and other suppliers starting Wednesday, limiting an influx that is testing the nation’s electricity grid.
The decision by the utilities serving Shikoku, Hokkaido, Tohoku and Okinawa, and a similar move last week by Kyushu Electric Power Co., threatens to undermine the national push to expand renewable energy supply in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Grid access “has been the largest impediment for clean energy developers in Japan,” Mika Obayashi, director of the Tokyo-based Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, said in a statement last week after Kyushu Electric’s announcement.
At the heart of efforts by utilities to limit clean energy access is the design of the electricity distribution network and whether it is able to handle the flow of intermittent supplies of power from hundreds of different producers. The grid is being challenged and utilities are starting to balk.
Kyushu Electric, which supplies power to almost 9 million residential and business customers, said Sept. 24 that it will suspend responding to applications by developers seeking access to its grid while it reviews how much more clean energy it can handle.
Shikoku Electric Power Co., Tohoku Electric Power Co., Hokkaido Electric Power Co. and Okinawa Electric Power Co. are also restricting access to varying degrees, as blackouts could occur if all output from renewable energy suppliers is transmitted to the utilities’ grids, causing overcapacity.
The moves run counter to the efforts of policymakers to promote and increase the use of renewable energy to alleviate the publicly touted plight of energy-dependent Japan.
Japan introduced incentives to encourage renewable energy development in July 2012, offering some of the world’s most attractive rates to developers through the feed-in tariff program, which required utilities to purchase electricity generated from renewable sources at fixed prices. A boom in clean energy projects — particularly in solar — resulted.
“The design of the feed-in tariff program could have included clauses to avoid a situation like this,” said Takehiro Kawahara, an analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The current design did not take into account any measures on matching renewable energy project development with local electricity demand nor ease of integration of approved projects into the existing grid infrastructure.”
A working group will be set up to review Japan’s grid, including how much access is available for clean energy and how access can be expanded, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said Tuesday.
About 72,000 megawatts of clean energy projects have been approved since the feed-in tariff program’s inception. The bulk of the approvals, or 96 percent, has been solar. Japan had 31,000 megawatts of renewable energy at the end of 2010, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data.
Not all clean energy projects qualifying for incentives have been built, signaling various bottlenecks ranging from the availability of land to the cost of equipment and labor. As of June, METI said that 11,090 megawatts of approved projects had started operating, 15 percent of the total.
Kyushu Electric’s decision is already affecting developers and installers with plans in the region.
Sanix Inc., a solar-panel installer with headquarters in Fukuoka, said it may shift workers.
“We will inevitably be affected as we won’t be able to install systems in areas covered by Kyushu Electric,” the company said in a statement Sept. 25. “We will review our plans for hiring, advertising and adding branches to minimize the impact” of the utility’s decision, the company said.
Kyushu Electric’s decision may also affect a 430-megawatt solar station under development on Ukujima, an island off Kyushu in Nagasaki Prefecture. The project, touted by developer Kyocera Corp. and its partners as the largest in the world to be built on agricultural land, has yet to secure grid access from Kyushu Electric.
“We want to continue talks with Kyushu Electric while gathering more information and working with our partners,” Kyocera spokesman Sanae Iwasaki said Sept. 25 after Kyushu Electric’s announcement. Orix Corp. and Germany’s Photovolt Development Partners GmbH are among Kyocera’s partners in the Ukujima project.
Some industry officials say the surge in feed-in tariff applications overwhelmed expectations, meaning utilities had difficulty estimating how much additional power they could take on. But the same phenomena has been witnessed in other countries.
Developers rushed at the end of the fiscal year for approval before the government lowered tariffs for solar projects. In March, Kyushu Electric received about 70,000 applications for grid access, equaling the amount received in the previous 11 months.
“The way solar expanded so abruptly was something that people in the industry didn’t anticipate, including myself,” said Hiroshi Takahashi, a research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute who says the tariffs for solar energy were too high. “The scheme has some problems. Developers rush at the end of fiscal year because the tariffs are only changed once a year.”
For the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation’s Obayashi, the pushback from Japan’s utilities is symptomatic of a larger problem. Besides solar, Japan has installed very little in the way of competing clean energy, such as wind or geothermal.
“The serious problem is little growth in renewables other than solar,” Obayashi wrote in a Sept. 5 column in which she looked at the challenges to the incentives program.
For wind power, grid access is proving a particularly troublesome hurdle for developers in Japan, Obayashi wrote.
“Operation of grids by power utilities that own generation facilities is obviously problematic in securing fair management in grid connection,” she wrote.