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Ten years after Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan finding path to renewable energy future

  • March 7, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



OSAKA – Ten years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and triple reactor meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, renewable energy in Japan is no longer on the margins of official debate. Instead, it has become an integral part of government policy, corporate strategy and public interest in realizing economic, as well as environmental, goals.


Though difficult cost and technology challenges remain, raising concerns about pricier electricity bills and stability of supply, renewable energy sources — particularly solar, wind, geothermal energy, hydro, and biomass — are expected to play major roles in Japan’s effort to become carbon neutral by 2050.


In 2010, the year before the March 11, 2011, disaster, renewable sources accounted for only 9.5% of the nation’s electricity mix. In fiscal 2019, renewables had expanded to provide 18% of Japan’s generated electricity.


Under the government’s current long-term energy strategy, renewables are due to account for between 22% and 24% of the nation’s power supply by 2030.


“Renewable energy will be introduced to the greatest possible extent,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in January, adding that the government intended to make further use of offshore wind and hydrogen ammonia.


Suga’s comments about offshore wind came a month after a meeting between top government and industry leaders where they announced a goal of having offshore wind farms generate 10 gigawatts of electricity by 2030 and somewhere between 30 and 45 gigawatts by 2040. That’s the equivalent of the power generated by between 30 and 45 nuclear reactors. Currently, only nine reactors have been officially approved for restart but as of last month, only four were actually operating.


Feed-in tariff

The shift toward renewable energy sources began to accelerate in August 2011. Pressure from within the government led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan to increase renewable energy usage by passing a feed-in tariff had been met with stiff resistance by the nation’s fossil fuel industries and the nuclear power industry, including powerful politicians connected to them.


In one of his final acts as prime minister before resigning over a failure to manage the crisis, Kan and the Democratic Party of Japan-controlled Diet, passed the tariff, which set purchase prices for renewable energy-generated electricity at rates designed to make them attractive to investors.


The tariff went into force in 2012 and kick-started increased investment and interest in renewable energy forms. Local governors and mayors began voicing their support for pivoting from nuclear power and increasing investment in renewables. New private institutes for studying renewable energy, such as the Tokyo-based Renewable Energy Institute, were established.


And in Fukushima Prefecture, the nuclear power plant disaster led to new central government initiatives and local determination to embrace renewable sources to an extent that goes well beyond current central government targets.


“Fukushima has a target to produce enough renewable energy to supply 100% of prefectural demand by 2040,” Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori said during a presentation at the Foreign Press Center of Japan last month. “Renewable energy supplied 34.7% of local demand in fiscal 2019. We’ve set a goal of 40% by the end of this fiscal year, rising to 60% by 2030.”


In addition to Fukushima, over 100 public and private organizations had, as of January, committed to 100% renewable energy use by 2050 at the latest.


They include Kanagawa Prefecture; the city of Saitama; Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist lay organization; research institutes; and businesses. Their efforts are also supported by the foreign, environment, and defense ministries, as well as Kumamoto and Tottori prefectures, and the cities of Yokohama, Kawasaki, Kyoto, Niigata and Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.


Access to the power grid

For renewable energy advocates, however, it’s the central government that needs to show more ambition in setting targets.


A total of 92 companies, including many large international financial, manufacturing, construction, and retail firms are calling on the central government to raise the current 22% to 24% renewable energy target for 2030 to somewhere between 40% and 50%. The Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), one of Japan’s three major business associations, has proposed a target of 40% renewables by 2030.


“Japan’s 2050 Green Growth Strategy states that renewable energy will account for 50% to 60% of the energy sources, the same as the 2030 (target by some other) developed countries, with the remainder to be covered by nuclear power, thermal power that employs carbon capture and storage technology, and hydrogen ammonia,” said Mika Obayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute in a statement to mark the 10th anniversary of the quake.


But expanding renewable energy use nationwide well beyond current levels, regardless of the time frame, faces a number of challenges.

While Obayashi says that solar costs in particular have decreased by 90% over the past decade, two major challenges to achieving the 100% renewable energy goal include cost differences with other energy forms, and issues related to the costs and ability of renewable energy suppliers to access the electricity grid.


The power grids are owned by the major power companies. Accepting all renewable energy power generated by new businesses that have entered the electricity market since 2011, they say, could lead to supply instability in adverse weather conditions. So the government allows them, in the name of grid stability and electricity flow, to restrict renewable energy supply without providing compensation to suppliers.


This has been a problem in places like Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Kyushu, where solar power firms have been told by utilities that their transmission systems have no spare capacity. It’s the utilities, often in competition with the renewable energy firms, that calculate whether they have spare capacity.


Whether they really don’t have capacity or say they don’t in order to prevent competition with their own thermal and nuclear power plants has long been a fundamental issue of contention in Japan’s energy debate.


“The main barriers to rapid and balanced expansion are political, bureaucratic, and social. The political challenge is that the regional electric power companies that have operated as de facto monopolies have huge sunk costs in nuclear power. Nuclear reactor manufacturers such as Hitachi have strong vested interests in maintaining nuclear power, as do some labor unions,” said Paul Mitford, professor of political science and director of the Japan Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.


Who’s in charge

The rush to renewable energy these past 10 years has also led to local complaints about noise and landscape pollution from solar panel farms and wind turbines.


Many cities, towns, and villages have passed local ordinances restricting the construction of renewable energy facilities, especially for wind turbines where there have long been noise complaints from nearby residents. To address growing public concerns and forestall more local opposition, the Environment Ministry plans to introduce a new system that will allow local governments to establish renewable energy zones.


Under the proposed system, renewable energy firms applying to operate a solar or wind farm in a certain location would have to explain in their business plan what landscape and noise prevention measures they are taking, how local employment will be promoted, and promise to help provide electricity in times of natural disasters.


The business plan would be scrutinized by local officials. Only those with their approval could formally apply for a permit to start the project. Revisions to the relevant law will be proposed in the current Diet session and, if approved, would go into force as early as fiscal 2022.


Thus, the changes since 2011 to official government and corporate attitudes toward the use of renewable energy have thus been dramatic. Discussions have moved from whether renewable energy was feasible to how much it should increase, and by when. One of the more fundamental questions, though, is who should be in charge of it.


At present, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry grants licenses to renewable energy businesses. But rules and regulations set by the Environment Ministry, the Land, Transport and Infrastructure Ministry, and even the agriculture ministry, all have to be followed.


As the former prime minister who pushed through the feed-in tariff law, Kan — now a Lower House lawmaker with the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan — is pushing to put renewable energy policy under one ministry.


There is enough farmland, Kan says, that can be multiuse in combination with renewable energy sources like solar.


“If we introduce sufficient farming photovoltaics (solar), it could cover all of Japan’s electricity needs,” Kan told journalists earlier this month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “This is something that the ministry of agriculture is promoting. Given the advanced age of many farmers, you can look at farm photovoltaics as a way to revitalize the agricultural industry. The ministry of agriculture could change its name to the ministry of agriculture and renewable energy.”


Another option would be to create a ministry for new and renewable energy, similar to the one in India. In a sign of how much attitudes toward renewable energy have changed since 2011, former Liberal Democratic Party Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, once a supporter of nuclear power and now a strong opponent of it, said at the news conference with Kan that such an option was easily within the realm of possibility.

“It wouldn’t be difficult to create such a ministry, if the prime minister were to decide to do it,” he said.

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