Contemporary Energy Shifts in Japan

During the visit to Tottori we received a lecture on the domestic energy market by Professor Kotaro Tagawa of Tottori University, spoke with Tottori prefectural government officials and visited regional power plants. This provided an array of views the current Japanese energy market, perspectives on policy direction in contemporary environmental and geopolitical circumstance and social discourse.

I identified multiple paradigm shifts currently underway in the Japanese energy sector:

  1. Movement toward renewable energy strategies
  2. Decentralisation of power production from a top-down approach with generation in the periphery to bottom-up, localised production that increases self-sufficiency
  3. Democratisation of energy policy away from central government and industrial complex interests

This journal documents the local energy situation and briefly explores these changes.

History of National Energy Production

The decades leading to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011 the Japanese energy market grew but remained primarily a fossil fuel driven market. The national government passed law in 1955 that kick started the Japanese nuclear power industry. Reliance on nuclear electricity generation increased particularly during the 1970s energy crisis. Prior to the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power accounted for over 15% of supply. Renewables accounted for less than 5% and have only marginally increased in recent years. Most generation is fuelled by oil, gas and coal.

Of the major energy markets, Japan is uniquely heavily reliant on foreign fossil fuel. Australia as one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and uranium is Japan’s main fuel source. Comparatively China and the USA are mostly self-sufficient and Australia is highly self-sufficient. Japan however has lower power consumption per capita to the Australia and USA. The domestic market is strictly regulated and split into separate regions, each with single electric company monopolies.

Turning points after the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant left questions over the Japanese nuclear energy industry and its image tarnished. Subsequently anti-nuclear sentiment surged across the populace. The political dilemma is now to achieve safe, economical, reliable and environmentally sustainable energy. In 2002 national policy intended to increase nuclear power to 30% to achieve CO2 reductions [1]. Emissions of CO2 are an order of magnitude less for nuclear than traditional fossil fuels, making objective comparisons of health and environmental impacts difficult. In July 2012 the national government instructed the suspension of all nuclear power plants, some were or are subsequently being decommissioned. The current national government is keen to restart nuclear energy production for economic reasons and two reactors briefly were restarted in July 2012 [2]. However only a third of reactors may realistically be restarted [3] and recent court decisions have surprisingly sided with citizens and local governments in a shift away from the central government [4][5]. The loss of energy production was covered by an increase in non-nuclear thermal generation and an increase in prices by all but two electric companies. There have been arguments to opportunistically move to a renewable based energy market. Besides obvious environmental advantages, renewables can be localised. Not unique to Japan, traditional large-scale electricity generation is often in the periphery, in regional areas ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Renewables provide scope to produce power near the point of consumption, increasing local energy self-sufficiency, however they continue to suffer from poor cost and space efficiency and rely on traditional generation for constant power availability.

The feed-in tariff

The national government established a feed-in tariff (FIT) in July 2012 to encourage renewable energy. FITs reflect the cost of the technology with fixed terms up to 20 years (table 1) but are reviewed annually.

Power Source Purchase Price Purchase Period
Solar (≥ 10 kW) ¥40/kWh + tax 20 years
Solar (< 10 kW) ¥42/kWh 10 years
Wind (≥ 20 kW) ¥22/kWh + tax 20 years
Wind (< 20 kW) ¥55/kWh + tax 20 years
Hydro (1,000-30,000 kW) ¥24/kWh + tax 20 years
Hydro (200-1,000 kW) ¥29/kWh + tax 20 years
Geothermal (> 15,000 kW) 26/kWh + tax 15 years
Geothermal (≤ 15,000 kW) 40/kWh + tax 15 years
Biomass (methane) 39/kWh + tax 20 years
Biomass (trees/bamboos) 32/kWh + tax 20 years
Biomass (wood/crops) 24/kWh + tax 20 years
Waste Construction Materials 13/kWh + tax 20 years
General Waste 17/kWh + tax 20 years

Table 1: Feed-in tariffs set by the Japanese national government (2012); Adapted from Mondaq [6]

Since the introduction of the FIT there has been a significant uptake in renewable energy, 1.4 to 2.2% nationally (excluding hydroelectricity).

Tottori Prefecture

Tottori is best characterised by being the least populous prefecture in Japan. It is predominantly rural, containing natural environments. All electricity production in Tottori is renewable, most energy is imported from other prefectures. The adjacent Shimane nuclear power station was a major source prior to suspension of operations.

Tottori prefecture is sparsely populated with habited areas close to close to natural environments

Tottori prefecture is sparsely populated with inhabited areas close to natural environments

Key energy changes in the past decade in Tottori:

  • Power consumption has remained relatively steady (4.0 x 109 kWh).
  • Increasing self-sufficiency from 10% in 2002 to 27% in 2013, achieved through renewable energy projects.
  • A 15% increase in renewable production between 2010 to 2014
  • Now uses 2.6x the national average of renewables, particularly biomass.
  • The suspension of the Shimane nuclear power plant has led to energy security and self-sufficiency concern.
  • Tottori is aiming to generate 45% of its energy consumption by 2019.

Tottori Prefecture has instigated multiple ordinances and environmental plans since 1996 that have fostered the uptake of renewable energy. Renewables are one of six primary goals of the current Tottori Environmental Initiative. The other goals include recycling, power conservation and living sustainably with the natural environment. The policy is realised by:

  • Supporting renewable generation and site surveys.
  • Alleviating bureaucratic restrictions.
  • Setting targets for biomass and geothermal increases.
  • Installing solar in public facilities and subsidising domestic installations.

The prefecture subsides solar panel installations for private premises. The average installation is 3-4 kW costing approximately ¥400,000 / kW, less ¥90,000 subsidy that is uncapped. The FIT allows excess energy to be purchased at ¥35 / kW (2015). Installations have dramatically increased over the past five years. In 2013 residential premises generated 32 MW and businesses 3.7 MW. The prefectural government recognises the FIT has made a significant contribution to their goals.

Tottori Energy Park and Stations

Tottori Next Generation Energy Park is a national government designation for a region with multiple renewable energy production to promote public awareness & interest. The park encompasses the multitude of renewable energy facilities within Tottori. A core part of the park is the Nature and Environment centre in the Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park.

Inside the Tottori Next Generation Energy Park Nature and Environment Centre at the Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park

Inside the Tottori Next Generation Energy Park Nature and Environment Centre at the Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park

Solar power was near non-existent in Tottori prior to the FIT yet now generates approximately 70 MW. The Softbank Tottori-Yonago Mega Solar Park was built in 2014 and produces 43 MW to supply 12,000 of 15,200 households (80%) in Sakai-minato city. Two adjacent sites previously zoned for residential and industrial are on loan from the prefecture for 20 years, inline with the term of the FIT.

One site of the Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park

One site of the Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park

The solar park requires minimal upkeep, with contractors undertaking infrequent maintenance on site. One site employs two sheep to naturally maintain grass growth.

Sheep at the Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park are used to maintain the grass in the facility

Sheep at the Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park are used to maintain the grass in the facility

Softbank, an Internet and mobile provider, has made large strives into renewable energy with twenty solar parks.

Tottori’s first wind farm was in Yurihama Town in 2002. Within five years there were 41 wind turbines across seven sites generating just under 60 MW. The Hojo-Sakyu Wind Farm, generates 13.5 MW enough 5,880 households in Kokuei town has 5,227 houses, so the town is entirely self-sufficient. Constructed by the local municipality, its focus is renewables targets over profit. Profits fund environmental projects, including solar panel installation for residence. The turbines have a 15-20 year life expectancy inline with the FIT. The station manager reported a positive community reception with minor noise concerns becoming accepted. Tottori prefecture is interested in developing further wind farms including on floating platforms in the ocean.

A wind turbine part of the Hojo-Sakyu Wind Farm

A wind turbine part of the Hojo-Sakyu Wind Farm

Other Tottori renewable energy initiatives include:

  • Wood biomass, support forestry
  • The use of hot springs such as the Kaike and Togo Hot Springs
  • The domestic use of solar water heating, pellet stoves, and residential batteries.

The only large-scale (>1 GW) plant in Tottori prefecture is the Matanogawa hydroelectric plant capable of 1200 MW operated by Chugoku Electric Power Company. Hydroelectricity is generally underutilised due to maintenance issues, leaving the prefecture more reliant on outside power. Matanogawa hydroelectric station itself operates off power from the nearby nuclear power plant.

The main nuclear power plant in the region is the Shimane power station, just across the western boundary of the prefecture. The station consists of three units. Unit 1 was already being decommissioned due to age prior to 2012. New safety measures being looked at for unit 2 such as increased battery backup, portable generators and water storage, all for cooling redundancy. Construction of unit 3 was nearly complete but has been halted since 2012. The combined output of unit 2 and 3 would exceed 2 GW.

Shimane power station units 1 and 2 from the viewing platform at the visitor's centre

Shimane power station units 1 and 2 from the viewing platform at the visitor’s centre

Chugoku Electric Power Company optimistically hopes to restart operations at Shimane in the near term. However its long-term future might rest with a fault line discovered 3 km south of the station a decade ago that government geological studies are still investigating.

Future policy considerations

The national government is opening up the energy market in 2016, breaking the longstanding monopolies of the regional power companies, a liberalised market that Softbank hopes to be a major player in [7]. These changes only further move the energy market away from a top-down approach. Large power companies may feel threatened and may make it difficult for smaller and newer players with limited points of interconnect. The manager of the SoftBank solar park downplayed such concerns however some regional power companies have already refused further applicants for grid access [8]. Eventually these changes may shift energy safety, self-sufficiency and sustainability into the hands of smaller players. Providing a democratisation of energy policy, allowing prefectures like Tottori to independently pursue a greater use of renewables.

References:

  1. Nuclear Power in Japan – World Nuclear Association
  2. Cheers and jeers over Oi reactor shutdown – The Asahi Shimbun
  3. Only a third of nuclear reactors may be restarted – Japan Times
  4. Fukui court blocks Oi nuclear reactor restart, in landmark ruling – Japan Times
  5. Japanese court blocks restart of Kansai Electric’s Takahama nuclear reactors on safety grounds – Australian Broadcasting Corporation
  6. Japan Launches The Feed-In Tariff System For Renewable Energy – Mondaq
  7. Japan Inc. makes big renewables push – Nikkei Asian Review
  8. After Fukushima, Japan gets green boom and glut – Associated Press

[This was my ‘diary’ submission for the tour of Tottori, Japan. The article was initially to be based on the broad theme of education but I started afresh, just before the deadline.]

As a bonus for the web… here are the locations of the featured power stations in and adjacent to Tottori…

Hojo-Sakyu Wind Farm:

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Softbank Tottori-Yonago Solar Park:

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Shimane Nuclear Power Station (Shimane Prefecture):

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