Joe Jackson

Despite nuclear fears, Japan solar energy sector slow to catch on

Despite disastrous 2011 Fukushima meltdown, the economy's power demand exceeds renewable potential

FUKUSHIMA, Japan — Morihiko Shimamura has a vision for the future, depicted in a cartoonish community map on his partially biomass-powered truck. In the drawing, solar panels sit atop self-sufficient buildings, as waterways generate hydropower alongside wind turbines, and transmission cables are buried underground.

As he drives around this large prefecture, teaching schoolchildren how to make rudimentary photovoltaic cells, the 57-year-old cofounder of an umbrella of not-for-profit sustainability organizations advertises his optimistic vision.

But current reality is very different. The landscape here still bears the scars of a 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear reactor meltdown. Piles of black bags containing contaminated topsoil litter hillsides; display panels along an expressway show high radioactivity readings; and some villages remain ghost towns, largely off-limits to residents.

“I want people to know that the technology, we can make it, and then also we can make by ourselves the energy … [and] create the society without nuclear plants,” Shimamura explained through a translator.

Local officials endorse his plan, in theory. They too want Fukushima to get all its energy from renewables by 2040. Solar panels are already visible on rooftops, in backyards and open spaces, while green enterprises and research institutes are encouraged to locate there. Nor is the prefecture is not alone in its hope to use the tragedy as the catalyst for change. In opinion polls, a majority of Japanese citizens consistently support the goal of abandoning nuclear power while harnessing more renewable energy. Former prime ministers, leading businessmen and a one-time nuclear industry executive are among those urging rapid transformation.

Proponents now argue the national energy landscape of Japan has already been altered irreversibly, but that progress could be expedited. “Now I know that without nuclear energy we can still carry on people’s lives and also the Japanese economy,” former Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Al Jazeera. “There are obstacles but in the long term … there will be more renewable energy.”

But a survey of the complex landscape of Japan’s power industry also reveals a complicated picture remains, with entrenched corporate and government interests resisting a full embrace of renewable energy sources. 

Panels in a small hillside solar park in Fukushima prefecture operated by Morihiko Shimamura.
Joe Jackson

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Kan, then premier, ordered all 50 of the country’s reactors shut down. They had accounted for nearly a third of Japan’s needs, but required rigorous safety assessments and upgrades. Once a proponent of building more nuclear power stations, Kan announced Japan would instead phase out all its existing plants.

Meanwhile the government reengineered a subsidy scheme, called a feed-in tariff, which mandated and incentivized utility companies to buy renewable energy at favorable prices — initially ¥42 ($0.36) per kilowatt-hour for big projects, guaranteed for a 20-year period. The price then declines in subsequent years of the program, funded by a surcharge on electricity bills.

Pacifico Energy, a subsidiary of the California-based Jamieson Group, was a newcomer attracted to the rates. The company started Japanese operations in 2012 and has four mega-solar projects (over 10 gigawatts) in the pipeline. 

“You have to go where there’s going to be a market,” said Nate Franklin, Pacifico’s Tokyo-based country manager. “Japan was very aggressive wanting to procure renewables and solar, and so that really was the driver.”

The tariff has achieved some of its aims; by April 2015, Japan had added nearly 88 GWs of renewable energy capacity, though only around a fifth was operational. Meanwhile, solar generation contributed to about 10 percent of the peak power supplies in Japan last summer, equivalent to more than 10 nuclear reactors.

However, growth has come almost exclusively in solar. Other renewables have barely budged, due to overly long and stringent permitting processes, according to analysts. And with tariff rates falling, they note solar growth may slow now too.

Furthermore, Japan’s utility companies have begun blocking access to their still-monopolized grids, claiming they are overwhelmed and solar supply is unreliable, which led the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to review and alter aspects of the scheme, creating further uncertainty.

Dr. Yoshiro Owando, director-general of the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute, in Koriyama, Japan, looks out over a small solar park and wind turbine, which help power pioneering research into renewable energy.
Joe Jackson

Yoshiro Owando, director-general of the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute (FREA), conceded some solar installation projects approved were “unsound.” The institute, part of the prestigious government-funded National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, is pioneering research into solar power storage to help create more consistent output, as well as developing next generation panels.

But Owando believes the limits to Japan’s electrical grid capacity and intra-regional transmission are the real barriers to growth. “Things are changing,” he added. “Many people are saying the mega-solar period [has] ended.”

Japan is one of a few advanced economies without a fully deregulated energy market: regional utilities monopolize power supply. Among other problems, it also lacks a single national grid; instead, the east operates at 50 Hz, the west at 60 Hz, with conversion capacity limits badly exposed after Fukushima.

“[We are] a very rich country, we have technology, but we don’t have any tools to deploy renewables,” said Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF), established in 2011 by Masayoshi Son, one of the country’s wealthiest men.

Long overdue reforms are finally underway, with the gradual introduction of electricity market competition. Residential power customers will be able to choose a provider for the first time later this year, and a total unbundling of the system should happen by 2020. “The transmission system has to be neutrally managed,” Ohbayashi added. “It has to be very much separated from power generation.”

Other Japanese inefficiencies, such as in construction, also stop solar from expanding. Comparisons show Germany, a global leader in solar power, has half Japan’s panel installation costs, despite higher labor rates. “You can sell the power for more money here, but it costs more to build projects,” said Franklin.

In 2012 the longtime incumbent Liberal Democratic Party of Japan ousted the Democratic Party of Japan, after three years in charge, immediately altering the energy landscape. The powerful nuclear industry, frozen in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, has since reasserted itself. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe allowed the first reactor to be turned back on last year and has announced nuclear power will account for over 20 percent of the nation’s needs by 2030, with renewables making up closer to 25 percent.

Professor Kenichiro Ota, chair of the Green Hydrogen Research Center at Yokohama National University, believes it could actually take 50 years to create a comprehensive renewable energy network. “In that time we need energy resources, so I think partly using nuclear power is very reasonable,” he said, though he doesn’t favor building new reactors.

Ota and Owando, of FREA, believe at most ten reactors can come back online given the new safety requirements, making the government’s nuclear ambitions difficult to meet. Meanwhile, critics claim the renewables target is woefully unambitious. “We should be able to exceed [that],” Owando added. “The goal is lower than world standards.”

‘[Japan is] a very rich country, we have technology, but we don’t have any tools to deploy renewables.’

Mika Ohbayashi

director, Japan Renewable Energy Foundation

The reemergence of nuclear angers some in Fukushima. “Prime Minister Abe is trying to sell nuclear power plants to foreign countries, to continue on with nuclear policies … they should clean up all the radiation first,” said Yoshitomo Yoshida, 76, a coffee shop owner in Minamisoma, less than 20 miles from the stricken power station.

Critics also claim the so-called “nuclear village” — a term applied to the various intersecting groups with an interest in the industry — has deliberately thwarted renewables progress, through things like grid access refusal and misrepresenting costs. 

“[There’s] a community that gets profit from nuclear energy,” Kan, the former prime minister, told Al Jazeera. “In order to protect their right, they’re trying strongly to revive nuclear energy. They are strongly against the progress of renewable energy.”

The Abe government has also announced plans to build 41 new coal-fired power plants over the next decade, claiming they are needed to meet demand and counter costly imports of natural gas and rising consumer energy bills. “This is the worst policy of Prime Minister Abe,” added Kan.

Ohbayashi, of JREF, also called the plan “crazy” given Japan’s already-rising CO2 emissions. She said Japanese officials at the recent COP21 climate change talks were conspicuously silent and thinks Tokyo will fail to meet the mandates set in Paris without a rethink. “Japan’s energy policy, especially the renewable energy policy, is quite behind the other advanced renewable energy countries’ policies.”

The entrance to FujisawaSST, a sustainable smart town being built by a collaboration of 19 companies in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo, Japan, where planners hope the community will emit 70 percent less CO2.
Joe Jackson

Despite resistance, parts of the private sector believe public attitudes have changed. An hour south of Tokyo by commuter train, a community is emerging that resembles the mural on Shimamura’s truck. Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town, a collaboration of 19 companies, sprawls over a 47-acre former Panasonic factory site.

More than 200 of the 1,000 planned housing units have been completed, as well as some commercial areas. The site, to be finished by 2018, aims to use 30 percent renewable energy and cut CO2 emissions by 70 percent through solar panels, storage batteries and energy-saving equipment, while reducing water consumption by 30 percent. A central office gathers household energy usage data that it shares with residents monthly.

“At first, I didn’t think that much [about energy use],” admitted resident Yuko Ogata, 38, cradling her infant son at the community playground. “But once I started living here … I think I have to save more power.”

Households elsewhere are taking matters into their own hands independently. Kevin Meyerson, 52, a retired online entrepreneur, has constructed a certified “Passive” house — a style that meets high levels of energy efficiency — in Karuizawa, 80 miles northwest of Tokyo. He claims the property, featuring arm-length wall insulation, triple-glazed windows and a naturally ventilating heat exchange system, is the most advanced in the nation.

Meyerson sells surplus power from rooftop panels back to the grid, while lowering his bills through efficiencies. He sees these kinds of incentives, coupled with electricity market deregulation and other coming reforms, as powerful drivers of renewables.

“The political system is fighting it, but there’s the opposite pressure because they opened up Pandora’s box and allowed people to invest in renewable power and get a reasonable return,” he said. “So it’s just a matter of time now.”

This report was made possible with the support of a program facilitated by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the United States-Japan Foundation.

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