Japan’s Tepco plans 7GW renewables roll-out, in pivot away from nuclear

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Japan’s biggest utility reveals plans to develop up to 7GW of new renewable energy capacity, in effort to “gain the competitive advantage.”

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Japan’s biggest utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company, has revealed plans to develop up to 7GW of new renewable energy capacity, marking a major departure from nuclear as the company strives to re-gain “the competitive advantage” in energy generation.

Tepco President Tomoaki Kobayakawa told the Nikkei Asian Review on Monday that the company planned to pour tens of billions of dollars into between 6 and 7GW of renewable energy projects both in Japan and abroad, including offshore wind and hydro power.

Reports suggest the focus in Japan will largely be on offshore wind, including the use of floating turbine technology that is considered to be well suited to the island nation’s relatively deep coastal waters.

And in hydro, Tepco plans to develop sites in south-east Asia, alongside its overseas and domestic wind power businesses. The company reportedly hopes to have each of the three renewables components generating at least 2GW of power.

The sharp turn into renewables comes more than seven years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that led to meltdowns at Tepco’s ruined Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, and the consequent shutdown of all of Japan’s remaining 48 nuclear reactors.

That shut-down continues still – and even reactors that have received approval to restart are struggling to get the social licence to do so, in light of the fallout from the Fukushima disaster.

Renewables, meanwhile, account for just 15 per cent of Tepco’s power output, which is less than its competitors, despite the fact that Tepco is Japan’s largest overall power producer.

“We must gain competitive advantage in renewable energy,” Kobayakawa told the Nikkei.

“This is not a case where one company does everything… I would like to decide on partners in one year from a wide breadth at home and abroad,” he said.

The new tack for Tepco suggests a major change in direction and thinking in the Japanese electricity market, where a skew towards nuclear and “baseload” generation has roughly mirrored Australia’s attachment to coal.

As a 2016 Greenpeace Japan report noted, the nation’s nuclear utilities have had a history of  “(lobbying) hard for the right to block access to the grid for renewable power plants” whenever they deemed it necessary to preserve grid stability.

They argued, said Greenpeace Japan, the all-too familiar line that the fluctuating output of renewables was incompatible with the output of nuclear reactors the government was trying to restart.

But this thinking appears to be shifting, and not just among power companies. A separate report last week in the Nikkei Asian Review noted that renewable energy momentum was also building in Japan’s corporate and industrial sectors, boosted by the liberalisation of the nation’s energy market in 2016.

“More Japanese companies are promising to source all of their electricity from renewable energy in 10 to 30 years,” the news site said. “A trend that could in turn spur investment to bolster grid capacity, to accommodate demand.”

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