Japan’s Green Power Dreams Delayed

A year after Fukushima, nuclear power is still down and renewables are far from ramping up

3 min read
Japan’s Green Power Dreams Delayed

Editor's Note: This is part of the IEEE Spectrum special report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power.

In the wake of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster, with nuclear power’s future uncertain, Japan’s parliament passed a bill in August aiming to boost green energy production. The bill—commonly called the feed-in tariff or FIT law—requires Japan’s 10 power utilities to purchase electricity generated by suppliers of such renewable energy sources as solar, wind, and biomass and is slated to go into effect this summer. But its implementation is far from ready, and some energy experts believe it will be decades before it really helps.

The law was passed amid an antinuclear backlash that has seen the country’s nuclear power generative capability come almost to a halt. At the end of January, just 3 reactors were operating out of a total of 54. Most were originally closed for maintenance and are now undergoing mandatory safety stress tests or are having test results reviewed. Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) said recently that this summer, when electricity demand is at its highest (about 180 gigawatts in 2010), Japan may well have no nuclear reactors in operation.

Yet despite the urgent need to smooth the way for renewable energy, little progress has been made to give the FIT law teeth.

“The price rules, technical standards…money flow and so on have not been decided yet,” says Keisuke Murakami, director of METI’s New and Renewable Energy Division, whose task it is to flesh out the plan once such details have been decided. 

There are also physical obstacles hindering the plan’s implementation. With mountainous terrain covering over 70 percent of Japan, flat land for living and agriculture is at a premium. This makes it difficult to install large solar and wind projects. 

According to government data, installed and planned solar farms are only around one-tenth to one-half the size of the largest sites in the United States and Europe, limiting their potential and cost competitiveness. It’s a similar story for wind generation—393 of Japan’s 479 wind power sites have fewer than five turbines. Worse, most wind sites are located in remote, hilly, and mountainous areas. This not only makes installation costly, it also makes turbines less efficient and prone to breakdowns from adverse wind conditions. Because the sites are small and difficult to get to, Murakami says, it usually takes many months for European manufacturers of the turbines to attend to repair requests.

Also, many such farms are set up in northeastern Japan and the northern island of Hokkaido, where good wind conditions exist, but because populations are small in these areas, the electricity grid is limited in reach. Though the FIT law obliges renewable energy plant builders to connect their systems to the grid, given the new plants’ poor accessibility, this can be burdensome, and local consumers would be faced with a high surcharge to help cover the costs.

Considering all these challenges, some industry watchers don’t see renewables as a near-term energy source. The Institute of Applied Energy (IAE), an independent research organization in Tokyo, estimates it will be several decades before solar and wind energy makes a significant contribution to Japan’s energy needs.

“At present, nonhydro renewable energies combined is just 1 percent of Japan’s power generation,” says Kazuaki Matsui, executive director of IAE. Though supporters of green energy will disagree, Matsui believes it is just not possible to install solar and wind farms in the huge numbers necessary over the next 20 years to make a serious difference. “We might expect some sizable [output] from renewables, maybe in 2050.” 

This article originally appeared in print as "Japan’s Green Dreams Delayed."

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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