Revamping the nation’s basic energy plan

The government’s basic energy plan, established in 2014, should be subject to a major overhaul. The power supply mix adopted the following year on the basis of the energy plan has much room for updating in that it gives nuclear power a target share too high to be feasible, sets too modest a target for renewable energy sources and seeks to have coal-fired thermal power plants — which many other countries are moving away from in view of their impact on the environment — account for roughly a quarter of the nation’s electricity supply in 2030.

In its ongoing review of the plan, however, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has already indicated that it will essentially not change the energy mix. As a result, discussions at a METI panel on the issue — comprising members tapped by the ministry from among scholars, major firms and business organizations — have been restricted to what needs to be done to achieve the energy mix targets. Since the nation’s long-term policy on energy is at stake, the plan should be discussed in a more transparent manner and stakeholders from broader segments of society should be involved in the talks.

The current basic energy plan came with a government pledge, following the March 2011 triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, to lower the nation’s reliance on nuclear power as much as possible by maximizing efforts to introduce renewable energy sources and to reduce energy consumption. Whether the energy mix target of having nuclear power account for 20 to 22 percent of the nation’s power supply lives up to that pledge may be questionable. But the fact is, despite efforts by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the power industry to bring idled nuclear power reactors back online once they have cleared the screening of the Nuclear Regulation Authority under revamped safety standards, restarts have remained slow.

The energy mix target is deemed to require 25 to 30 reactors in operation as of 2030. Since the NRA’s post-Fukushima safety guidelines were introduced in 2013, however, only five reactors at three plants run by Kyushu, Kansai and Shikoku Electric Power have been reactivated following the NRA’s nod and the consent of host governments. Operation at one of them — Reactor No. 3 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture — was ordered suspended in a court injunction issued last month on one of dozens of lawsuits filed across Japan seeking a halt to nuclear power plant operations.

Meanwhile, power companies have decommissioned eight aging reactors at six of their nuclear power plants since the 2011 disaster, not including the six reactors at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, as the cost of beefing up safety features and maintaining the plants increase. The share of nuclear power remained a mere 2 percent as of 2016.

On the other hand, the target of boosting the share of renewable sources in power supply to 22 to 24 percent in 2030 seems too conservative, given that their share has already increased to around 15 percent on the strength of the sharply declining cost of power generation using such sources. Foreign Minister Taro Kono blasted the government’s energy policy as “lamentable” in that Japan lags significantly behind the world in the use of renewable energy. Speaking at a gathering of the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, Kono deplored that Japan is aiming for a 24 percent share of renewable energy in 2030 even though renewables already account for 24 percent of global power supply on average today. The government should aim for a more ambitious renewables target in reviewing the energy mix.

Also subject to review should be the 26 percent share set aside for coal-fired thermal power plants in the 2030 energy mix target. The COP23 United Nations climate change conference held in Bonn, Germany, in November saw accelerated moves by countries to phase out the use of coal in power generation — which emits more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel — as they step up their fight against global warming. Yet in Japan, plans are afoot to build more than 40 new coal-fired power plants, including some whose construction has already begun, as the power companies favor the low cost of the fuel. But the government and the power industry should reconsider a continued reliance on coal for power generation as the nation seeks to revamp its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris climate change agreement.