More than a numbers game: N-power key to Japan’s energy plan

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A view of the reactor buildings and storage tanks for contaminated water at the TEPCO Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, in January 2018. AFP

The government’s medium- and long-term guidelines for ensuring a stable supply of energy must not end up as a mere display of seemingly coherent numerical targets. The path to achieving a stable energy supply should be clearly marked.

The government has presented a draft of its new basic energy plan to an advisory panel. It plans to make a cabinet decision on the plan this autumn after collecting opinions from the general public.

In the draft, regarding the energy mix in fiscal 2030, the proportion of renewable energy sources such as solar power was raised from a range of 22 to 24 per cent in the current plan to a range of 36 to 38 per cent, and that of thermal power was lowered from a 56 per cent share to 41 per cent. Nuclear power remained in the range of 20 to 22 per cent.

The basic plan supports the government’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 46 per cent from the fiscal 2013 level by fiscal 2030. The focus was on how far to increase renewable energy and how to position nuclear power.

The ratio of renewable energy will almost double from 18 per cent in fiscal 2019, but it must be said that the reason for this is unclear.

It will be difficult to start full-scale operations of offshore wind power generation, which holds enormous potential, by fiscal 2030 because it will take time to put the systems in place. The only renewable option is solar power, which can be installed quickly.

However, solar power generation has increased rapidly due to the government’s feed-in tariff system. As a result, Japan is said to already rank highest in the world in terms of installed photovoltaic power generation capacity per unit of land area. There are few suitable places left for solar power generation, and concerns are growing over the development of more land for solar power generation having disastrous effects, such as the destruction of mountain forests.

The government intends to expand solar power generation through such measures as converting devastated farmland and using the rooftops of public facilities. However, many experts believe that even such approaches will not be enough. The central government needs to cooperate with local governments and the private sector to find a realistic build-up approach.

Solar power generation has weak points, such as its inability to generate electricity at night and being subject to weather conditions. If thermal power generation, which makes up for these shortcomings, is to be drastically reduced, then the only alternatives are to expedite the development of large-capacity storage batteries or utilise nuclear power plants. Nuclear plants are stable power sources that do not emit carbon dioxide.

But when it comes to nuclear power, it will be difficult to achieve even the ratio that was carried over from the current plan. Although the latest draft continues to regard nuclear power as a “key source of electricity” only 10 of the 27 nuclear reactors that have applied for restarts since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake are currently in operation.

It is said that unless all 27 reactors resume operation, it will be difficult to raise the nuclear share of the national energy supply to 20 per cent in fiscal 2030. It is essential for the government to take responsibility by supporting the restart of these reactors.

The draft plan does not mention the construction of new reactors or the rebuilding of existing facilities. It seems that the government did not want to make the issue a point of contention in the next House of Representatives election.

Even if the fiscal 2030 goal can be achieved, the government will then face its next goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to virtually zero by 2050. However, even though the maximum operational period of a nuclear reactor has been extended to 60 years, the number of the units will have decreased to 23 in 2050. The government should start discussions on building new reactors, or rebuilding existing ones, as soon as possible.

Editorial / THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK