Japan remains far behind many other advanced economies in the use of renewable energy such as wind and solar power. The government is now weighing a new set of measures to promote renewable energy, including expanding offshore wind power and reviewing the rules on access to the power transmission system — one of the key hurdles to increased use of renewables.
These efforts should be backed up by a much more aggressive target for increasing renewable energy in this country — to prompt greater investments in the sector and to drive home the government’s commitment to de-carbonizing the nation’s energy policy in the fight against climate change.
The government’s basic energy policy calls for turning renewables into a principal source of power supply. However, the target share for renewable energy in the 2030 power supply mix — 22-24 percent of the total — is even lower than the 26 percent envisioned for coal-fired power plants, which many other industrialized nations plan to phase out because they emit more global warming gases such as carbon dioxide than other sources of power. Renewable energy including large-scale hydraulic power accounted for 17 percent of the nation’s power supply in fiscal 2018 — nearly double the 9 percent in 2010 but still well below the levels in advanced European economies.
When most of the nation’s nuclear power plants were shut down following the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holding’s Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, the power industry fired up more thermal power plants, including coal, to make up for the loss of nuclear power, which supplied 30 percent of the nation’s electricity demand before the disaster. Favored for its cheaper cost and the low geographical risk involved in its supply from overseas, the share of coal power reached 32 percent in 2018, second only to the 38 percent of natural gas-fired plants.
In recent years, Japan has come under growing international fire for its heavy reliance on coal despite the global efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In response to such criticism, the government last month fleshed out its earlier pledge to phase out “inefficient” coal-fired power plants. Of the nation’s 150 coal plants, 120 were categorized as less efficient in their power generation, and about 100 of them are expected to be set aside for either decommissioning or suspension from service by 2030.
However, the impact of the move on combating climate change may not be as big as the numbers suggest. Most of the coal plants to be put out of service are old, small-capacity facilities. The more “efficient” ones that will be kept, including those now planned or under construction, have much larger capacities so the net reduction in the total capacity of coal-fired plants in Japan will only amount to some 20 percent, according to an estimate by an environmental group.
In fact, the government is not expected to change coal’s share of 26 percent in the 2030 power supply mix. Even an “efficient” coal plant is said to emit twice as much carbon dioxide as a natural gas power plant, and many point to the global warming risk posed by keeping those plants in operation for decades to come.
Japan has pinned its hopes on nuclear energy — which does not emit carbon dioxide in generating power — for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. However, the restart of nuclear plants idled in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster remains slow. Nuclear power’s share of electricity supply in 2018 was a mere 6 percent — a far cry from the government’s target of 20-22 percent in 2030. Due to lingering safety concerns and the increased post-Fukushima cost of running nuclear plants, prospects are slim that the restart of the idled plants will pick up significant speed in the near future.
Given the uncertain future of nuclear power and the nation’s continued heavy dependence on fossil fuel-based energy, the government remains unable to upgrade its commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris agreement to fight climate change — even though nations are urged to revamp their voluntary plans every five years to prevent the catastrophic effects of global warming. Significantly boosting the use of renewable energy holds the key to Japan accelerating its de-carbonization efforts, and the government needs to make its commitment clear by sharply upgrading its targets for the share of renewables in energy supply.
The higher cost of renewable energy in Japan compared to other countries where the use of those energy sources have become more prevalent, as well as the unstable power generation by renewable sources dependent on weather conditions, have often been cited as reasons why renewables don’t take off in this country. Rather than continue to use those problems as excuses for dragging our feet, we must pursue technological innovations to overcome them and lower the cost of renewables. It’s time to shift gears in the effort to restructure the nation’s energy landscape.
The Japan Times Editorial Board