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Why does renewable energy not spread in Japan?

Renewable energy power generation is spreading worldwide, and its costs have significantly dropped that they are almost equivalent to those of existing technologies that use other power sources, especially when generating power from wind and solar energies. A policy to use renewable energy as the main power source has been announced in Japan, and the development of solutions is currently discussed to implement it. However, the spread of renewable energy power generation in Japan is slow compared to many developing countries. By looking at the current ratio of renewable energy power generation in comparison with the target renewable energy generation in 2030, it is more than 60% in the EU, but it is only about 22%–24% in Japan.

This is basically because renewable energy is not highly appreciated in our country. In particular, there is little recognition from those who are involved in decision making on energy-related policies, including politicians, bureaucrats, and other people in the energy industry, which might be due to some conventional conceptions about the use of renewable energy, as many people believe that renewable energy is expensive, inefficient in power generation since it depends on the weather, and requires a large area due to its low energy density. Moreover, the intellectuals who are believed to have the necessary knowledge are more likely to believe in such ideas. For many years, energy policies in Japan have been based on the stable supply (energy security) and on economic energy production. However, lately, the environment is more considered in energy policies, and Japan has become in a situation in which there is no other choice but to follow the international public opinion.

Since Japan has few resources, the stable procurement of oil, coal, and natural gas from other countries has been the most important policy until now. Although these are commodities and have fluctuations in prices, they a have high energy density, and their costs are lower compared to low-density renewable energy. The Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, trading companies, electric power companies, and the manufacturers of heavy electric equipment have played a leading role in the stable procurement of fossil fuels. In addition, nuclear power generation, which uses uranium fuel that burns for several years once loaded, requires the import of uranium resources, but it is stable compared to other domestic resources. However, although the necessary constructions and equipment for nuclear power generation have a very high cost, its costs are significantly low compared to thermal power generation from fossil fuels, and it also does not emit CO2. As a result, nuclear power has been at the heart of the energy policy. Also, since a series of costs can be eventually recovered from electricity charges, an “interest community” is formed around electric power companies. When renewable energy becomes the mainstay, existing renewable energy businesses are downsized, and they feel that the vested interests are being violated, thus preventing the spread of renewable energy.

On the contrary, some countries and regions, mainly those that are sensitive to global warming and have few fossil resources, have realized the potential of renewable energy and decided to strongly promote it as a policy. Such countries include several nations in the EU, the US, and recently China. Although renewable energy has low energy density, it neither runs out nor has fuel costs. If the facility costs can be reduced, the total costs will be equal to or less than thermal power generation. In addition, since the necessary facilities and equipment are made in factories, there is a good advantage of their mass production, and their degree of spread and cost reductions can be calculated.

Therefore, more policies will be considered soon to support renewable energy so as to secure its market. For example, the feed-in tariff (FIT) policy in the EU, as aimed, is approaching the simultaneous achievement of the spread and cost reduction of renewable energy. In addition, solutions for the unstable output of renewable energy have been discovered, including the use of the power grid and storage, the production and use of hydrogen, and sector coupling. Such policies are gaining the benefits of self-sufficiency, CO2 free environments, and the creation of new industries and jobs.

Of course, in Japan, there are groups of vested interests related to fossil fuels, thermal power generation, and nuclear power generation. Since there are upstream resource industries, there may be more stakeholders. However, the EU decided to promote renewable energy as a national policy, and it also convinced the existing stakeholders, who will shift to new systems and businesses after considering the mainstreaming of renewable energy. Japan still cannot make this decision, and while the world changes dramatically toward a new era, the insistence that “Japan is not suitable for renewable energy” is still strongly rooted.

Some overseas scholars argue that Japan is suitable for promoting renewable energy because it is a resource-rich country for renewable energy. The long coastlines and vast territorial sea areas are capable of generating a huge amount of ocean and wind energy. In addition, Japan has high precipitation, and it is a volcanic country. Moreover, it has the third-largest geothermal resources in the world. In addition, 70% of its land is covered with forests, and it has vast biomass resources. A well-known environmental scientist, Amory Lovins, estimates that Japan has nine times more renewable energy resources compared to Germany.

There are still many conflicts with the existing systems as to why political decisions and policies regarding renewable energy have not been made yet, which slows the spread of renewable energy. Also, renewable energy support systems, such as the FIT policy, are ambiguous, and the vested interests in the use of the existing networks remain unchanged. Also, existing businesses have almost monopolized renewable power generation facilities. Despite initiating policies for electric power deregulation, they have not been put in place yet. If we do not sincerely recognize the energy trends in the world and do not change our policies regarding energy generation, the gap will only be widened.

Kimio Yamaka
Specially appointed professor of Kyoto University
Director of the Institute of Energy Strategy Research Institute Co., Ltd.

2020.03.11