Editorials

Too much emphasis on coal power

One of the worrying directions in Japan’s energy policy is the emphasis on coal-fired thermal power plants — which are more cost efficient than natural gas-fired plants but emit roughly twice the amount of carbon dioxide. The government’s Basic Energy Plan calls coal-fired thermal power a key source of electricity supply that excels in terms of fuel supply stability and cost advantage.

The draft of its long-term energy mix forecast assumes that coal will account for 26 percent of the nation’s total electricity generation in 2030. Power companies are announcing plans to build one new coal-fired thermal power plant after another.

Such developments run counter to the moves in many other industrialized economies, which are seeking to cut back on coal-fired power generation as part of the fight against climate change. Japan’s financial aid for developing countries to buy Japanese coal-fired power generation technology may also expose the nation to growing international criticism. The government and the power industry should rethink the policy and the plans.

The anticipated 26 percent share of coal-fired thermal power in the draft 2030 energy mix is roughly on a par with the 27 percent forecast for natural gas-fired power plants. Since power companies have idled their nuclear reactors in the wake of the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant, thermal power has accounted for a major part of the nation’s electricity supply. In fiscal 2012, the share of natural gas-fired thermal power hit 42.5 percent, while that of coal-fired plants was 27.6 percent.

In the 2030 energy mix, it appears that the government is seeking to reduce the share of natural gas — which like coal must be imported but is considerably more expensive — and retain coal-fired power generation roughly at the current level, despite the greater environmental strain it imposes, while putting nuclear power plants back online to cover the gap created by the reduction in natural gas-powered electricity output.

This policy direction is behind the utilities’ rush to build new coal-fired thermal power plants. According to research by an environmental organization, Japan’s power companies have plans to build 45 new coal-fired plants with a combined output capacity of 23.28 million kilowatts. If all of these plants are put in operation, their total annual carbon dioxide output will be an estimated 120 million tons — equivalent to about 10 percent of Japan’s overall emissions in 1990.

As the nation began to rely more heavily on imported fuel (which has become more expensive with the yen’s steep fall against the dollar) to run thermal power plants in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, electricity charges shot up about 20 percent for households and roughly 30 percent for businesses.

The Abe administration emphasizes cost factors in seeking to restart the idled nuclear reactors, while the business community says the increased cost of electricity dents the competitiveness of Japan’s industries and calls for restraint in the introduction of renewable energies on the grounds that they cost more. The government’s emphasis on coal-fired thermal power also dovetails with the argument by power firms in favor of coal because it is less expensive than natural gas.

But coal-fired power plants built now will likely be in operation for 40 years or longer — and emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases the entire time. Launching a large numbers of such plants today would appear to contradict the government’s long-term goal of reducing the nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 by 80 percent from current levels.

The United States and Britain have tightened regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, effectively making the construction of new coal-fired power plants impossible in those countries. Even China, which continues to rely heavily on coal as a key source of energy, is moving to cut back on coal-fired power generation as part of its fight against climate change and severe air pollution. It is doubtful that Japan’s policy of continuing to rely on coal-fired power plants will be acceptable to the international community, which is pushing efforts to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

Japan also stands out among the developed nations in continuing to extend financial aid to developing countries seeking to build coal-fired power plants. The World Bank as well as public financial institutions in the European Union and the United States have announced that they will in principle end lending to finance such projects, and private-sector lenders in these countries are beginning to follow suit.

The Abe administration, in its quest to boost infrastructure exports as a key to the nation’s economic growth, is pushing overseas sales of Japan’s coal-fired power plant technology, with the government-funded Japan Bank for International Cooperation extending large-scale loans for projects in such countries as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

The government reportedly says that replacing the old power plants in other countries with the latest, highly efficient coal-fired plants contributes to significantly reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases. But it should reconsider whether such a policy — along with its emphasis on coal-fired plants at home — will be internationally acceptable given the global trend of moving away from the use of coal to generate power.