A recent report by a panel of experts at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on long-term energy strategy toward 2050 calls for a policy shift toward making renewable energy such as solar and wind a “major source of electricity” but fails to set any target for their share of the nation’s power supply. Since Japan lags far behind the rest of the world in promoting renewables, the proposed policy should be promptly backed up by clear long-term goals and a concrete road map to put them into action.
The panel’s proposal, expected to be reflected in the government’s Basic Energy Plan when it’s updated this summer, comes amid the pressing need for more action worldwide to combat climate change as well as Japan’s changing energy landscape after the 2011 Fukushima crisis.
Since the reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power station, the government has pledged to reduce as much as possible the nation’s dependency on nuclear energy while maximizing efforts to increase electricity generation through renewable sources. Its energy mix target for 2030 envisages nuclear power accounting for 20 to 24 percent, renewable sources including hydro power 22 to 24 percent, coal-fired thermal power plants 26 percent and natural gas-fired plants 27 percent.
The government has pushed for restarting nuclear reactors idled in the wake of the Fukushima disaster once they have cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening under revamped safety regulations. However, the restart of idled reactors continues to be slow as popular opposition to nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster remains strong. The extra cost of investing in additional safety features has thrown in doubt what used to be touted as nuclear power’s cost advantage. Power companies are choosing to decommission aging reactors, rather than pour in the huge amounts of money necessary to meet the NRA’s requirements. Feasibility of nuclear power’s target share in 2030 is increasingly in question.
Meanwhile, Japan’s continued reliance on thermal power plants — in particular the emphasis on coal-fired plants, which generate twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas-fired plants — has drawn international criticism as countries around the world explore cuts to greenhouse gas emissions under the 2015 Paris agreement to combat climate change. The panel’s report calls for phasing out “inefficient” coal-fired power generation.
Since the feed-in tariff system was launched in 2012, introduction of renewable energy in Japan has made progress — with solar power generation increasing sevenfold since before the system was started. However, the combined share of renewable energy sources, including hydro, in the nation’s power supply stood at 14.6 percent as of 2015 — compared with 26 percent in Britain, 30 percent in Germany and 35 percent in Spain. More than 60 percent of new power generation facilities built around the world in 2017 were for renewable energy, which has reportedly come to account for 25 percent of the global electricity supply.
Japan has fallen behind the global trend of lowering the cost of renewable energy — facilitated by technological progress, price competition and increased number of participants in the market — in turn promoting greater use. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of solar power generation has declined by more than 70 percent over the past seven years. But while the average European cost of solar in 2016 was ¥10 per kilowatt hour of electricity, the figure stood at ¥20 in Japan.
Currently, renewable energy in Japan is subsidized under the feed-in tariff system, which guarantees that electricity generated by renewable sources will be bought at fixed prices over certain periods. The challenge is not just to close the price gap with other countries, but to make the renewable energy business economically viable for its operators after the fixed-price purchase period is over.
The METI panel’s report also highlights various technological hurdles for renewable energy to take root as a major source of power supply. Today, fluctuations in power generation due to weather conditions need to be backed up by thermal power plants. Development of batteries and the technology to store surplus electricity by converting it into hydrogen will be among the key challenges, along with securing efficient networks for transmitting the power to consumers. The government needs to take the lead in the efforts to overcome these hurdles and make renewable energy in Japan a competitive source of power supply.