October 2015 | www.selectasset.com
Where's the power in Japan?

It’s been four years since the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami took out Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power station, in one of history’s worst commercial nuclear power disasters. As a result, Japan gradually shut down all its nuclear power reactors, and most are still down today. However, on August 11, (yet another eleven) Kyushu Electric Power began restarting the No. 1 reactor at its Sendai Nuclear Power Station. Today, the 30-year old Sendai reactor is fully operational and generating power. And despite continuing public protests, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is seeking to restart more reactors in the near future. In the meantime, what other sources of energy are currently filling the gap and which ones have yet to take hold as potential sources of electrical power generation in Japan.

First, let’s take a look at the basic facts. Japan can produce electricity at the rate of about 293,000 megawatts (MW) or 293 gigawatts (GW), and the total amount generated in Japan per year is about 950,000,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) or 950 terawatt-hours (TWh) A watt-hour is the amount of energy consumed in one hour at the rate of 1 W.  Before March 11, 2011, when the Tōhoku Earthquake knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing a socio-economic disaster of epic proportions, Japan generated about 30% of its electrical energy from more than 50 nuclear reactors. But the disaster drastically changed the picture, and by September 2013, thanks to a renewed focus on plant safety and vocal public dissent, Japan had halted all commercial production of nuclear power.

New rules for the same nuke business

Then, after the implementation of stricter regulations, the Kyushu Electric Power Company restarted its 846-MW Sendai Unit 1 reactor in Kagoshima prefecture this past August. Located about 1,000 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, the 30-year old reactor is at full capacity today and fuel loading is well underway at Sendai Unit reactor No. 2, which officials are looking to fire up in October. Before 2011, the Sendai Unit 1 reactor had produced 6.2 TWh of electricity annually. Today, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is saying the plan is to gradually increase nuclear power to fill about 21% of the country’s energy needs by 2030.

In the meantime, to take up the energy shortfall due to the offline reactors, Japan has shifted to an 88% reliance on fossil fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal. However, this has come at considerable economic and environmental cost. According to an April 14 article in World Nuclear News, at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), Masakazu Toyoda, of Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, said that the drain on national wealth due to increased fuel imports amounts to 3.6 trillion yen per year. At the same conference, Kenji Yamaji of the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth stated that the greater use of fossil fuels has increased Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 10.8%, which is above 1990 levels and wiped out the Kyoto Protocol achievements Japan reached in 2010. However, despite these incentives toward greater reliance on nuclear generation, there is considerable public opposition to its continued use, as evidenced by well-organized, almost weekly marches and protests in Tokyo. 

Bright plans for a brighter future

What about alternatives in Japan to nuclear generation that don’t involve burning fuel and releasing carbon dioxide into the environment? One abundant, and well-researched alternative is converting sunlight to electrical power using photovoltaic (PV) technology, commonly known as solar cells.

At the end of 2014, Japan had a total PV capacity of 23.3 GW and was the world’s third largest PV power producer after Germany (38.2 GW) and China (28.2 GW). Overall Japanese PV capacity is now sufficient for about 2.5% of national demand and went up by 9.6 GW in 2014 alone.

Japan’s largest PV installation is the 82 MW Oita Solar Project in Oita City, Kyushu, which began operations in April 2014. It was constructed by Marubeni Corp. and is operated by the corporation’s subsidiary, Oita Solar Power Corp. The approximately 340,000 solar panels on the 105-hectare site are expected to produce about 87 GWh of electricity per year (enough for 30,000 households) while eliminating the emission of 35,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which would have been a by product of producing the same power with fossil fuels. The country’s second largest solar farm is the 70 MW Nanatsushima Mega-Solar Power Plant in Kagoshima, which can deliver up to 79 GWh in a year. Other even bigger PV projects are underway, and a 2010 report from the Japan Ministry of the Environment stated that generation of as much as 100 to 150 GW of PV power could be feasible in the future.

Soon everyday will be Sunday

“Solar has come of age in Japan and from now on will be replacing imported uranium and fossil fuels,” said Tomas Kaberger, executive board chairman of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation. Regarding residential PV systems, the cost of installation has rapidly declined over the last five years, and assuming a system lasts for 20 years, home electricity can now be PV-produced for about the same price as the standard grid electricity.

Another key renewable energy source is hydroelectricity, with an installed capacity of around 50 GW. It’s a low-cost and relatively stable source of energy, which in 2013 supplied 76 TWh or about 8% of the country’s total electrical consumption. But unfortunately hydropower in Japan is considered to have limited potential for development.

Is the answer blowing in the wind?

Wind generation, on the other hand, is considered to have great potential. Although it currently adds only about 1% to the electricity mix, the Ministry of the Environment estimates as much as 300 GW onshore and a massive 1.6 TW offshore could be produced, while even low estimates put potential wind power capacity at 131,000 MW. The Japan Wind Energy Association is aiming for a 20-fold increase of wind power capacity by 2020.

Symbolically, perhaps, the world's largest capacity floating wind turbine has recently been positioned 20 kilometers off the Fukushima coast. The 105-meter-high, 7-MW generator was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and is scheduled to go online before the end of 2015.

Geothermal energy, today provides about 519 MW. A further 9.8 GW is available, and even more could be obtained if restrictions on development in national parks were eased.  The Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), an organization under the jurisdiction of METI, has a basic contract for investment exploration for geothermal resources in the Matsuo Hachimantai area in Iwate Prefecture with Iwate Geothermal Power Co., Ltd. JOGMEC has proceeded with support projects, providing subsidies for research in geothermal resources since September 2014, but this is the first time it has provided support for a project through investment.

Some more earthy alternatives

Iwate Geothermal Power Co., Ltd. has decided to proceed with an exploration project in the Hachimantai area, where the company has previously conducted research, and is expecting to achieve power generation of 7,000 kW. JOGMEC is investing 24.99% of its fiscal 2015 budget in the project.

Unfortunately however, today, other than hydroelectricity, clean and renewable energy currently provides a very small fraction of the electricity consumed in Japan. However, its contribution is steadily increasing, and by 2030 METI is planning the following approximate mix for these renewables: 9% hydro, 7% solar, 2% wind and 1% geothermal. Where does, the elephant in the room, nuclear power, fit into that plan? Only time will tell.