Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama said in early July that the government will work out a program to phase out inefficient coal-burning thermal power plants — by either suspending or scrapping these plants. METI later followed up on the move by launching a panel of experts to weigh concrete policy steps to implement the plan.

A growing number of countries have pledged to either halt or decommission coal plants as a symbolic move toward decarbonization in the effort to fight climate change under the Paris Agreement that took effect in November 2016. Britain, Germany and France have set their own deadlines for scrapping all of their coal-fired power plants, while other European nations promise to end coal power as a centerpiece of their energy policies.

At the United Nations Climate Action Summit, held in New York last September, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on member states for a full departure from coal power, urging them not to build any new coal-fired plant beginning in 2020, noting that they emit more carbon dioxide than any other energy source.

In Japan, meanwhile, the Fifth Basic Energy Plan adopted by the government in July 2018 lists coal as an “important baseload power source for generating electricity” and calls for the government’s proactive support for developing next-generation coal-fired power plant technology. The plan also calls for phasing out inefficient coal plants. Therefore, Kajiyama’s announcement is nothing more than a pledge to start working out specific steps toward that end.

Baseload power refers to an energy source capable of supplying set amounts of electricity in a stable manner and at low costs during all seasons, under any weather conditions and by day and night. Among the energy sources meeting such qualifications are coal, nuclear power, large-scale hydraulic power, geothermal power and biomass.

Of the 140 coal-burning power plants now operating in Japan, the government has categorized 114 as inefficient and the remaining 26 as efficient. The government’s plan is to suspend or scrap 100 of the inefficient coal plants (except for the remaining 14 in Okinawa and other offshore islands), and replace them with more efficient facilities. So Japan’s coal policy is clearly different from those of the European countries that aim to abolish all coal-burning power plants regardless of their efficiency.

There are two types of coal-fired plants classified as efficient: ultra super critical pressure (USC) coal plants and integrated coal gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants. There are two other next-generation types on which much hopes are placed: the integrated coal gasification fuel cell combined cycle (IGFC) and the advanced ultra critical pressure (A-USC). Environmental NGOs criticized the government for providing financial support for an IGFC demonstration project.

According to documents distributed at the METI experts panel, coal-generated power accounted for 32 percent of Japan’s electricity consumption in fiscal 2018: 16 percent from inefficient plants, 13 percent from efficient plants and the remaining 3 percent from self-generation for private use. The papers state that as state-of-the-art coal power plants now under construction will start operating, the proportion of electricity generated by efficient coal plants may increase to account for about 20 percent of the total power supply.

In fact, there’s only about 10 percent difference in power-generating efficiency between efficient and inefficient coal plants. Still, the government seems intent on upholding coal as a baseload energy source, even using state funds to improve its electricity-generating efficiency. There are two reasons why the government keeps listing coal as an “important baseload” energy source: First, coal has the least geopolitical risk among all fossil fuels. Second, it offers the lowest cost for generating heat among fossil fuels.

If the share of coal is reduced to about 20 percent of the total energy supply by 2030, what other source would fill the gap? Will renewable energy — billed as a primary source of power in the latest basic energy plan — become a major player?

The METI papers have a chapter calling for a study to review the rules for the use of power transmission lines to prepare for turning renewable energy into a primary power source. Constraints have in fact surfaced in the power transmission system with the increase in power generation from renewable sources. Renewable energy operators complain that they are denied connection to the transmission system because of lack of capacity and high connection fees, or that they are kept waiting too long to be connected. Measures to ease such constraints will certainly contribute to the greater use of power generated by renewable sources.

If the government is really serious about making renewable energy a principal source of power, it must go beyond mitigating these constraints and take further steps — such as providing public subsidies on initial investments, easing relevant regulations, promoting the use of storage batteries, diversifying the locations of power stations — to encourage the use of renewable energy.

Still, it would be quite tough to turn renewable energy into a baseload power source. For that to happen, it is essential that energy-supply facilities become smaller in scale and their locations be diversified. It will take massive efforts to convert today’s power industry structure, which is a concentration of large-scale power plants in limited areas.

According to the 2018 Basic Energy Plan, it’s estimated that coal will generate 26 percent of the nation’s total electricity in 2030, followed by renewable energy at 22 to 24 percent and nuclear power at 20 to 22 percent. The METI papers say that highly efficient coal power (the USC and IGCC types) has the potential to cover some 20 percent of the power supply once IGCC plants under construction start operating.

That means the remaining 6 percent will have to be filled by building the most advanced plants (either A-USC, IGCC or IGFC type). Assuming it takes about five years to build such plants, it is next to impossible to expect even one advanced coal power station to start operating commercially within the next 10 years.

That leaves nuclear energy as the sole candidate to assume the role of the baseload power source.

In sum, the decision to suspend or abolish inefficient coal-fired power plants in response to the international outcry against coal seems nothing more than a step to realize METI’s goal of reinstating nuclear energy as the principal source of power supply. This would be accomplished by accelerating the restart of existing nuclear power plants and creating a national consensus for building new nuclear plants, which has been put on hold since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. It is obvious that the ministry wants nuclear power to make up for the shortfall in coal power supply.

Takamitsu Sawa is vice director of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture.

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