At Yamakura Dam, 45 km southeast of Tokyo, construction workers are screwing together a 51,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of floating solar panels. When completed, it will be one of the world’s largest floating solar projects.
Roughly 30 percent of the work on the project in Chiba Prefecture is complete, and when it comes online in 2018, the 13.7 megawatt facility will provide enough electricity to power almost 5,000 households annually.
However, even attention-grabbing projects like this one will produce less than 1 percent of what’s needed for Japan to reach its 2015 goal of doubling its renewable energy use to between 22 and 24 percent by 2030 from around 10 percent at present.
The growth of renewable energy in Japan risks being smothered by a wave of newly approved coal mines across the country, as the government is expected to lower its optimistic goal of reviving nuclear energy.
Experts say the government energy policy review, expected as early as next year, will likely result in a downgrading of the forecast for nuclear power’s role in the 2030 energy mix — to between 10 and 15 percent from its current 22 to 24 percent. The move to amend the forecast, initially made in 2015, comes as the government faces ongoing legal challenges and public backlash against the restart of nuclear reactors that were taken offline in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima reactor meltdowns.
Downgrading the nuclear proportion of the energy mix will provide a fresh wave of opportunities for alternative energy sources to play a larger role.
However, experts say burdensome environmental assessments for wind and geothermal energy, disadvantaged access to the power grid, as well as 48 approved new coal mines, will mean renewable energy may see few of the benefits.
In almost every prefecture nuclear power and fossil fuels are classified as “baseload” energy sources and given priority access to the electricity grid. While renewable companies have access, they are the first to be switched off in the event of excess power and they aren’t compensated.
Ali Izadi-Najafabadi, head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Japan, said this is the opposite of the way systems are configured in Europe, where renewables get first access to the grid because they have the lowest marginal cost of production.
“The government said they wanted to make sure the baseload generators wouldn’t have to adjust the baseload for renewables, which are unreliable. It’s a bit of a flawed argument,” Izadi-Najafabadi said.
He said it was “more about the financial arguments” for the operators of these plants. “These generators are only cheap if you produce at a constant rate,” he said.
Gerhad Fasol, CEO of Eurotechnology Japan, a company that works with European technology companies investing in renewable energy here, says the country has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world. “Japan had the initial solar surge in 2011, but now there needs to be a focus on how to broaden and diversify,” Fasol said.
Shortly after the March 2011 Fukushima meltdowns the government introduced generous incentives for investment in renewable energy in the form of feed-in tariffs where the government buys renewable energy at above-market rates.
Data from Japan’s 10 largest regional utility companies showed the share of solar in the energy mix rose to around 3.4 percent in 2015 from 0.4 percent in 2012.
But as the initial feed-in tariffs have since been scaled back, the solar investment boom is fading. Sales in photovoltaic units are on the decline and Teikoku Databank Ltd. said in a recent report that the number of solar companies going bankrupt is rising sharply.
Izadi-Najafabadi said that while large-scale solar energy investment will likely see a “significant slowdown” over the next few years, Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects a massive uptake in rooftop solar, driven by consumers incentivized by favorable loan options from banks.
“The government forecast solar would be 7 percent of the energy mix in 2030; our forecast is closer to 12 percent. We also think the government might exceed their overall 22 percent total renewable prediction. Rooftop solar is really going to drive this,” Izadi-Najafabadi said.
Others, however, are not as optimistic. Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace Germany, who has analyzed Japan’s nuclear program since 1991, said large-scale renewable investment will continue falling and the government may not reach its renewable energy goals unless hurdles regarding access to the grid are surmounted.
“If you are a solar company and you aren’t guaranteed access to the grid, why would you invest? There is a critical role for the government in untangling the grid and wresting back control from the utility company in the next four years,” said Burnie.
“There is an intentional destabilization of renewables from the utility companies (through denying access to the grid) and it needs to stop.”
One of the reasons the government gives coal and nuclear energy preferential treatment is because they are considered more stable than renewable energy sources, which are reliant on weather.
In Europe, Burnie pointed out, an emphasis on a range of renewable energy sources provides most countries with a stable baseload of energy.
In Japan, the spread of renewable energy to sectors other than solar is thwarted by complicated environmental assessment approvals, which take between two and five years and are not required for nuclear power or coal-fired power plants.
There are only a few wind farms currently operating in Japan and most are offshore and in trial phases. Strong community resistance in parts of the country has also severely limited investment in land-based wind energy.
The country also has significant potential for geothermal energy, with a National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science survey in 2008 finding Japan has the third-highest resources for geothermal in the world.
However, investment has also been slowed by the environmental assessment process and resistance from the onsen hot springs industry, which is concerned about the impact accessing more geothermal energy will have on their business.
In the U.S., President Barack Obama announced a moratorium on all new federal coal-mining leases in January and many developed countries are slowly weaning themselves off coal. However, in Japan the government is increasingly turning to fossil fuels to fill the energy gap left by idled reactors.
Liquefied natural gas has been used to fill much of the country’s short-term electricity needs and the approval of the 48 new coal mines in the past several years appears to indicate the government’s medium to long-term goals.
“We say in Japan it’s easier to build coal-fire power plants than wind farms,” said Nao-yuki Yamagishi, leader of the World Wildlife Fund Japan’s climate and energy group.
Yamagishi said that if the 48 new coal plants approved by the government come online, coal will overshoot a 26 percent target in the 2030 energy mix, down from 30 percent in 2013, and block space for further potential renewable energy increases.
Yamagishi said the recent move toward coal has made him skeptical about whether Japan is capable of fulfilling the pledge it made last December at the COP21 climate conference in Paris.
Japan vowed a 26 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, a pledge at the lower end compared with other OECD countries.
“The current administration doesn’t place any emphasis on climate change,” Yamagishi said, adding that the recent Upper House election campaign had a lot of discussion about nuclear energy, but nothing about climate change.