The Direction of Japan’s Post-Fukushima Energy Policy: Q&A

Coal Burning and Power Generation in Japan

A Q&A on Japan’s energy policy since the Fukushima nuclear disaster and where it’s going after a nuclear reactor restarted Aug. 11 on the southern island of Kyushu.

Has clean energy gained ground?

Renewables -- not including hydropower -- provided 3.2 percent of Japan’s electricity in the year ended in March, compared with 1.6 percent three years ago when the country started an incentive program. Solar has been the biggest winner. But the boom has congested the grid in some regions, and utilities have been pushing back. One solution would be pushing for more wind power, but that has drawbacks. Wind farms can be subject to lengthy environmental assessments, and like solar, the availability of suitable locations for wind turbines can be a challenge.

What do policymakers want?

A report from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry assessing Japan’s energy supply and demand anticipates fossil fuels will supply 56 percent of electricity by 2030, while nuclear will account for about a fifth. “The mix is pretty much in line with what the power utilities and big corporations have been insisting on such as the revival of nuclear, and priority given to cost over carbon dioxide emissions,” said Hiroshi Takahashi, a professor of energy policy at Tsuru University in the prefecture of Yamanashi.

What about nuclear energy’s future?

Policymakers are calling for nuclear, which used to provide more than a quarter of Japan’s electricity before the Fukushima accident, to account for as much as 22 percent by 2030. Myriad challenges may limit the technology to 8.9 percent of the mix, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said in June. It identified hurdles including cost and the regulatory steps needed to extend the life of operating reactors beyond the typical 40 years.

What are the risks?

Japan risks falling behind other economies in developing new forms of energy because its support for nuclear power threatens to crowd out a bigger contribution from renewables. Germany, for example, is seeking to get 80 percent of its power from sources such as wind and solar by 2050. South Africa and Brazil are among the developing nations successfully stimulating renewables. Giving renewables short shrift would leave Japan dependent on volatile prices for fossil fuels. “We are entering a world where 40 percent or 50 percent of power from renewables will be a standard, prompting developments in technologies such as energy management, storage and efficiency,” said Hikaru Hiranuma, a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a private research institute in Tokyo.

What’s coming next?

The policy may face review as early as next year for regular updates, said Takahashi of Tsuru University. For the next round of reviews, the government probably will consider issues such as whether to add new nuclear capacity and the replacement of older units, he said.

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