On July 3, the government announced it would shut down about 100 coal-fired power plants by fiscal 2030. It was the first time the government had given a figure and a deadline for shutting down coal plants, which have long been an integral part of the nation’s industrial history and development. Here’s a look at that history and what the announcement could mean for Japan’s future energy policies.

How long has Japan used coal as an energy source?

Historical records show that the small-scale burning of coal goes back to at least the 16th century for household use.

Large deposits of the fuel were later identified in what is now Hokkaido, around Kushiro and Ishikari, as well as in modern southern Fukushima and northern Miyagi prefectures.

There was also coal in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and the Kyushu region, including what are now Fukuoka, Saga and Kumamoto prefectures, had large deposits.

Following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, coal mining became critical for industrial progress. It was the fuel that powered the steamships, trains, factories and steam engines of the era, and demand for coal soared.

Government figures show that in 1877, the nation’s coal output was only about 500,000 tons. Three decades later, in 1907, it had reached 13.9 million tons.

When did the nation’s use of coal peak?

Coal was the dominant energy source for much of the first half of the 20th century, and domestic coal mines run by major conglomerates still known today — like Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo — would be among the most dominant players in the coal industry. But since the mid-1950s, government-forced changes on the industry led to many mines closing down.

Between 1955 and 2002, nearly 1,000 coal mines were closed and more than 200,000 workers were displaced, according to Naoko Shimazaki, a Waseda University professor, writing in the spring 2015 issue of Japan Labor Review.

Smoke rises from a coal-powered thermal plant in Sendai in January 2018. | KYODO
Smoke rises from a coal-powered thermal plant in Sendai in January 2018. | KYODO

By the 1960s, imported coal and oil were becoming cheaper domestic coal. As a power source, coal also came under fire for its pollution. Nuclear power plants, which began operating in 1966, were touted as a clean, green and cheap alternative to fossil fuels, and part of a national strategy to diversify energy resources in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.

During the 1970s, coal provided around 15 percent of the nation’s electricity. But with concerns about the instability of oil markets, coal use slowly increased. By 2010, coal provided 25 percent of the nation’s electricity. At that time, there were plans to reduce its use by increasing that of nuclear power and LNG.

So why does Japan still rely heavily on coal 10 years later?

The March 2011 disaster and triple meltdown at the Tepco Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant led to the temporary shutdown of all the nation’s nuclear power plants.

New plans were drawn up to increase the use of coal, and to construct new coal-fired plants to partially replace the idled nuclear plants, despite environmental concerns domestically and abroad about increased greenhouse gas emissions and their effect on global warming.

Unit 2 of the Matsuura coal-fired power station has been operated in Nagasaki Prefecture since December 2019. | KYODO 
Unit 2 of the Matsuura coal-fired power station has been operated in Nagasaki Prefecture since December 2019. | KYODO 

The decision also came at a time when increasing public and private sector enthusiasm for using more renewable energy sources was growing.

An increasing number of prefectural politicians, and even ruling Liberal Democratic Party members like current Defense Minister Taro Kono, began to show their support for renewable energy.

But many utilities and heavy industries opposed a drastic increase in renewables, arguing that coal (as well as natural gas) was safer, more stable and a more secure energy source than renewables. They also insisted coal was far cheaper than solar or wind power.

In its 2014 energy plan, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe labeled nuclear and coal important energy sources. However, domestic and international concern and criticism over the nation’s coal use and its environmental impact continued.

In 2018, the government announced it would move to “fade out” older, inefficient coal plants. The details remained fuzzy until the announcement on July 2 this year.

What does the decision mean in terms of coal use from now on?

Coal accounted for 33 percent of Japan’s electricity mix in fiscal 2019, and the government’s long term basic energy plan continues to envision coal supplying 26 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2030.

Of the 100 units being shut down, many are older, smaller-scale plants. Most of those predicted to be in operation in 2030 are newer, larger-capacity plants.

But Japan will still face pressure to further reduce its reliance on coal, both domestically and abroad, and embrace renewable energy sources and other cleaner energy forms such as LNG.

To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the United Nations and environmental experts say developed countries must completely phase out coal use by 2030.

The nation’s decision to reduce its coal use could also have an impact on its trade diplomacy. In fiscal 2018, over 70 percent of coal imports used for fuel came from Australia, with 11.4 and 11.1 percent coming from Indonesia and Russia respectively.

That same fiscal year, Australia also provided 46 percent of Japan’s coking coal, used in steel production, while Indonesia provided over 22 percent, the U.S. 13 percent and Canada 9.9 percent. Whether its trading partners will press Japan to replace any lost orders for coal with increased orders for other energy forms, and how it would respond, will impact its international relations as well as its domestic energy policy in the years to come.

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