Business

Is Japan's 'clean coal' initiative lagging behind the rest of the world?

by Osamu Tsukimori

Staff Writer

It may have come as a shock to some when reports surfaced that major economies such as Japan and Australia didn’t get a chance to make a speech at the U.N. Climate Summit held in New York on Monday, allegedly due to their continued support for coal as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pushed countries to pledge even loftier climate goals than they did under the Paris agreement.

In spite of heightened calls for phasing out coal, global coal consumption rose nearly 1 percent in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency, due to robust demand for power generation in China and India.

In post-Fukushima Japan, the government has sought to achieve a balanced energy mix and considers coal one of its main energy sources due to its advantage of being cheap, stable and safe from geopolitical risk, as it imports almost all of its oil from the Middle East.

Even as coal continues to draw renewed criticism, why is Japan, which has been regarded as a country espousing eco-friendly values, continuing its push for what it calls “clean coal” energy? Here are questions and answers about the status of Japan’s “clean coal” initiative:

Why does Japan continue to rely on what is widely regarded as dirty fuel? Doesn’t this run counter to the global push for achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

In short, the government says Japan needs coal to make up for the shortfall after shutting down most of its nuclear power plants in response to the Fukushima No. 1 crisis in 2011.

Before Fukushima, the government had aimed to raise the utilization rate of domestic nuclear plants to more than half of the total power mix by 2030 in an attempt to address climate change. That goal was shattered by the nuclear meltdown accident.

After Fukushima, coal power, which had accounted for about a quarter of Japan’s power supply, rose to more than 30 percent in 2013 to compensate for the nuclear plant shutdowns.

Before the disaster, nuclear accounted for about 30 percent of the total power supply.

To be sure, coal — if it is used under rudimentary technology — is the dirtiest of the fossil fuel-fired generation methods.

But Japan is promoting “clean coal” and mandating all new plant construction to adopt the best available technology, or BAT, to reduce the environmental footprint.

So how clean is Japan’s “clean coal?”

Japan is one of the world’s leaders in coal power technology. It is also spearheading an effort to commercialize a new technology called integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) units, which helps to achieve even higher power-generation efficiency through the gasification of coal.

According to Japanese estimates, if all the existing coal plants in Asia and the United States are fitted with ultra-supercritical (USC) technology, global carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 1.2 billion tons a year, close to the total annual emissions of Japan.

Japan is the fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide, with the world’s total emissions being 33.1 billion tons a year. So if Asia and the U.S. used the Japanese technology, it would theoretically lead to a 3.6 percent reduction.

Whether this is a significant amount depends on the eye of the beholder, but until technological advances allow for renewables to become the main source of energy, the government thinks Japan needs to rely on “clean coal.”

From Japan’s standpoint, is the U.N. move shortsighted or warranted?

Even when coal plants use the best available technology, they are still worse in terms of carbon emissions compared with gas-fired power.

Every country has its own energy issues, and because coal plants emit nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as gas-fired power, Japan is promoting new plant construction equipped with state-of-the-art technology to replace aging coal plants.

But Japan aims to continue relying on coal plants as one of its main power sources for the foreseeable future, and is projected to make up 26 percent of total power output in 2030, down from 33 percent in 2016. Globally, coal accounts for roughly 40 percent of the power mix.

The continued use of coal is partly because Japan diversified its energy sources due to the oil shocks of the 1970s.

“We share the same principles as others to realize a low-carbon society,” said Satoshi Onoda, president of Jera Co., which operates about half of Japan’s thermal power plants. “But we think low carbon is a little different from a coal-free society.”

By law, electricity firms have to use USC technology for newly constructed coal plants in Japan. Does that still pale in comparison to gas-fired power generation in terms of the environmental burden?

Yes. Even with the most advanced coal technology, there is more impact on the environment than with gas-fired power.

Japan’s USC coal plants have a power generation efficiency of about 43 to 44 percent, but the latest gas-fired plants have an efficiency of well over 50 percent, according to Atsuo Sagawa, senior research fellow of a coal group at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.

Jera, which is a unit of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. and Chubu Electric Power Co., operates one of the world’s most efficient gas-fired power plants. It boasts a Guinness World Records-worthy power-generation efficiency of 63.08 percent, obtained last year.

Still, with Japan’s “clean coal” tech, and compared with aging units built before 2002, emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and particulate matter by newer plants have fallen by 92, 83 and 90 percent, respectively, according to the Natural Resources and Energy Agency.

There’s a growing call globally to utilize carbon capture technology, which buries carbon dioxide deep under the seabed. What’s the status?

Japan aims to capture and store 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year from 2020, and a consortium of firms called Japan CCS Co. is finishing a three-year demonstration project involving 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide emitted from an oil refinery in Hokkaido this fiscal year. CCS stands for carbon capture and storage.

But the technology is showing no signs globally of reaching the commercialization stage because of the high cost: It runs as much as ¥7,300 to handle 1 ton of carbon dioxide, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

“CCS is technically possible, but it doesn’t make sense economically,” says the IEEJ’s Sagawa. “Unless there are considerable subsidies from the Japanese government or globally, it won’t be possible.”

Japan, separately, has what it says is a “challenging” goal to curb carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and that takes into account a certain share of the greenhouse gas reductions coming from carbon dioxide capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).

The trade ministry estimates there is potential to store 146 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the surrounding waters of Japan.

Japanese companies have a track record of exporting coal plants as there’s robust demand for new construction abroad. Because of budget constraints, some developing countries are constructing plants built with well below the best technology. Isn’t this a bad idea environmentally?

The OECD in 2015 agreed on a groundbreaking deal to limit public financing for coal plants and provide lending only for USC facilities.

However, there is an exception to the rule allowing construction of coal plants in developing nations without the best available technology. Japan exports the state-of-the-art technology in principle.

“We’re aware that some countries in Asia want to use coal. We have made it our mission to deliver the latest solution to energy needs around the world and stand ready to answer and respond to various needs,” Onoda, Jera’s president, says.

However, the initial cost of constructing USC coal-fired plants is much higher than for gas-fired plants using the best available technology, Sagawa says.

“But the fuel costs are much cheaper than gas, and over the decades, coal plants are a cheaper option and remain a popular option,” he added.

There’s a growing backlash against the coal-fired plant projects in Japan. Does coal still have a future?

It’s growing more difficult to build coal plants in Japan, as eight years have passed since the nuclear crisis and people have come to realize that Japan has not had a power shortage in a while, Sagawa points out.

Some projects were also shut down because they didn’t make economic sense. Japan had a plan to construct 30 new coal-fired plants totaling 16.7 gigawatts of output by the end of March 2018 as part of an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by replacing aging units. That comes despite calls by U.N. Secretary-General Guterres for governments not to build any new coal power plants after 2020.

“Japan needs to use clean coal technology for the next few decades and it has good potential to curb global emissions, but that would not play well to people who oppose coal usage,” Sagawa said.