A new report has called on the Japanese government to re-focus its energy policy on shifting the country to 100 per cent renewable energy – and move away from nuclear – nearly five years after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami disaster put a serious question-mark over the nation’s dependence on nuclear power generation.
The report, released on Thursday by Greenpeace Japan, warns that the renewable energy revolution that was set in motion in the wake of Fukushima, is in danger of losing momentum, held back by conflicting government policies that unfairly favour coal and nuclear.
“Nearly a year after the nuclear disaster, Fukushima Prefecture pledged to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2040. But the policies that the Japanese government is currently promoting are heading in the opposite direction,” said the group’s energy campaigner, Ai Kashiwagi.
“The recent boom in solar energy shows that the right government policy can translate to tangible changes on the ground, but other renewables such as wind are lagging and the government continues with the restart of nuclear despite multiple safety problems and widespread opposition from the public.”
Greenpeace points to its report published in the wake of the 2011 disaster, in which it presented a pathway for Japan to replace all of its nuclear power with energy savings and renewable power generation by 2020, and to increase the share of renewables to 57 per cent by 2030.
But the most recent government target, a draft report from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry published in April 2015, suggested that renewable energy sources would supply just 24 per cent of Japan’s electricity in 15 years’ time, albeit with slightly less to come from atomic power, at around 22 per cent; 26 per cent would come from coal.
“These targets provide insufficient protection from both nuclear and climate risks,” the Greenpeace Japan report says. “Progress must be measured against (our) Japan targets instead.”
The March 2011 meltdowns at the ruined Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station – for which three TEPCO executives were this week charged with criminal negligence – spread radiation across a wide area in northeastern Japan and led to evacuations that left more than 100,000 homeless.
They also resulted in the shutdown of all of Japan’s remaining 48 nuclear reactors – pre-2011 nuclear supplied around 30% of Japan’s power – as governments assessed the way forward for what Bloomberg describes as “one of the world’s oldest nuclear fleets.”
As BBC reported last year, Japan survived surprisingly well without nuclear power for more than four years: “The predicted blackouts did not happen, the country kept running just fine.”
Prior to 2011, just 9 per cent of Japan’s power came from renewables – and almost all of that from hydropower. Only 1 per cent came from solar. After 2011, however, this changed dramatically – thanks in large part to a generous federal feed-in tariff – and at the end of 2014, Japan had a total of 23GW of solar PV installed, putting it ahead of Italy as the number three solar energy producer in the world.
Indeed in 2015, the combined installed solar PV capacity from that year alone generated an estimated 13TWh of electricity, more than the combined output of the two Sendai reactors that were restarted that year.
But according to BBC – and to the Greenpeace report – all this has suddenly ground to a halt when, at the end of 2015, Japan’s big power companies began telling solar producers they could take no more electricity from them, and the government FiT was cut by almost half.
At the same time, the Abe government began pushing ahead with a return to nuclear power, arguing that Japan – which had also increased its use of coal and gas power after 2011 – needed the reliable and relatively clean “base load” power that nuclear could provide. (Read our recent article here explaining why the myth of base load power is still being perpetuated by governments, industry and media).
As Greenpeace Japan notes, “Japan’s nuclear utilities have lobbied hard for the right to block access to the grid for renewable power plants whenever they deem it necessary to preserve grid stability.
They argue that the fluctuating output of renewables is right now incompatible with the inflexible output of old nuclear reactors the government is trying to restart, says Greenpeace Japan, despite evidence it will be practically impossible bring enough nuclear power plants online to reach the government’s target of 20-22 per cent by 2030.
“The Japanese government is acting to protect the interests of the dirty utilities rather than supporting the people of Japan in their ambitions for a safe and clean energy system,” said Kashiwagi. “Japan needs to give renewables priority access to the grid and stop wasting resources trying to restart nuclear plants.”
To do this, Greenpeace proposes several crucial measures Japan’s government must take, including unbundling the country’s transmission and distribution operations from generation and retail sales as soon as possible, in anticipation of April 1 when Japanese households will be able to choose their energy suppliers for the first time.
“In order to remain on track to a sustainable, reliable and affordable electricity system, the Japanese government urgently needs to change course and streamline its policies. It needs to put the interests of the Japanese people before those of the utilities.”
Other measures the report recommends the government undertake include extending feed-in tariff incentives to other renewable energy technologies, and to stop investment in coal power plants.
“The plans to build new coal power plants are in total contradiction with the agreement concluded at the COP21 in Paris last year and even Japan’s unambitious targets,” the report says. “Building coal power plants – the worst emitters of CO2 in power generation – means locking in CO2 emissions for decades to come.
“If Japan wants to prevent embarrassment in front of the international community in the coming years, it should not build a single additional coal power plant and start replacing the old ones with (bio-)gas turbines and renewables,” it says.