Japan Coal Revival Ducks Scrutiny With Small Plants, Critics Say

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As Japan burns more coal following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, power producers are able to duck pollution standards by building coal-fired projects small enough to avoid national regulator scrutiny, critics say.

About a third of 45 new power-generation units fueled by coal won’t face the government’s environmental assessment because their small size puts them under the review level, according to Kiko Network, a Kyoto-based environmental group.

Coal’s role is under debate as resource-poor Japan grapples with the Fukushima disaster’s shutdown of all nuclear plants and plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. While operators say smaller plants can be built faster, their exemption from national -level inspections is a sore point for foes.

“Big coal plants pose more serious problems,” said Kimiko Hirata, Kiko’s international director. At the same time, she said, “if you build ten small units, that equals a big one and small ones are inefficient. It’s a problem that there are plans for projects that can get away with assessments.”

Supporters of coal say that not only is the fuel cheap, it is also able to supply continuous, reliable power -- a requirement that renewables such as solar and wind have yet to fulfill. The latest technology means coal can also be burned more efficiently without producing as much carbon dioxide as older plants.

Coal Push

The coal rush comes as Japan prepares to fully open its power-retail market, which has long been dominated by regional utilities. Hundreds of newcomers in need of power to sell are emerging.

“It is very difficult to build a large-scale thermal power station because of needs for space and infrastructure such as a port” for non utilities, Nippon Paper Industries Co. said by e-mail. Nippon Paper plans two small coal projects.

Small plants allow for speedy development, Nippon Paper said, adding that it is conducting voluntary assessments.

Japan’s reliance on coal has been rising to make up for lost nuclear capacity after Fukushima. Despite some of the world’s most generous incentives for clean energy, coal accounted for 30 percent of Japan’s electricity generation in fiscal 2013, up from 25 percent in 2010 before the disaster.

At the same time, a majority of the small projects may burn biomass, including wood pellets, to qualify for a government incentive program designed to encourage clean energy. Coal power producers say that’s one way to reduce emissions, while critics argue that doesn’t help much unless the share of biomass to be burned is high.

Biomass Addition

“The total emissions may be lower if biomass is added, but we should not increase coal power in the first place,” said Takeshi Wada, who until March served on the government’s panel charged with setting clean energy tariffs. “Mixing biomass with coal is meant effectively to dodge criticism because coal emits so much carbon dioxide.”

National environmental assessments require plans and surveys from developers on potential air pollution, noise, water quality and impact on the landscape and ecosystems. Citizens, the heads of local governments, and the environment minister can express their views as the process advances.

Because coal plants falling below the 112.5 megawatt capacity threshold are exempt, several years could theoretically be shaved off the approval and construction process, critics say. And while some local governments impose rules requiring that assessments be conducted on small thermal plants, regulations depend on location, according to Japan’s environment ministry.

Small Units

Even proponents advocating the use of coal technology that pollutes less -- and is seen as a potential source of export to developing countries -- question the use of smaller units.

“We say Japan’s coal technology is the best in the world,” said Masahiro Sakane, who chairs a trade ministry task force on energy issues and is also adviser to construction machinery maker Komatsu Ltd. “But we are building small and inefficient thermal power plants one after another while all nuclear reactors are halted. I doubt if that is what we should be doing,”

The rise of smaller plants hasn’t escaped the notice of Japan’s environment ministry, which released new guidelines in October and raised concern that the environmental footprint of a proliferation of smaller units “may become comparable to those from large-scale thermal power plants.”