Japan released its sixth strategic energy plan on July 21, following Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s pledge in the fall of 2020 that the country would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.
However, frankly speaking, the plan does not come across as convincing. It is unrealistic, and threatens to damage Japan’s power-supply equilibrium.
The latest energy plan consists of three main parts:
- Renewable energy will account for 36% to 38% of all electricity generated in Japan by fiscal 2030. This represents an increase of more than 50% compared to the 22% to 24% targets in the existing plan.
- Maintain the current target of 20% to 22% for nuclear power as a percentage of total power, but try to reduce it as much as possible, and make no plans to build any new or rebuild any existing nuclear power plants.
- The share of thermal power will be reduced from the previous target of 56% to 41%.
There are numerous doubts concerning this plan.
First, the plan’s targets are unrealistic. Second, there is a danger it could lead to large-scale destruction of the environment. Third, it threatens to uproot Japan’s manufacturing industry and lead to its hollowing-out. Finally, it would mean a large financial burden on people in Japan, and lead to the nation’s decline in the medium term and long term.
There is a deep-seated opposition to the energy plan within the Liberal Democratic Party. However, Suga has been leaning toward the opinions of politicians such as Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi over the plan, despite the fundamental contradictions in their thinking.
What is Suga’s judgment criteria concerning an energy plan that can realistically support the foundations of Japan? Is this plan in the national interest? Is it right to simply trust certain politicians without verifying their statements?
We are dealing with the day-to-day lives of over 120 million people as well as the future of Japan, so serious questions need to be asked.
To center Japan’s power supply around renewable energy is difficult in both the near-future and the far-future. Solar-power generation is mainly limited to the hours between 10 AM and 4 PM, which is only 25% of the day.
Adverse weather is also an issue, meaning the capacity utilization ratio of sunlight is only 13%.
Moreover, solar-power generation requires an auxiliary power supply to continue providing power during the 87% of the time the sunlight is not available. Countries other than Japan get around this by using nuclear power or thermal power.
Koizumi rules out such options, but at the same time he has not answered how he intends to supply power in a stable manner. This is a crucial issue, and failure to address it is irresponsible. This arguably makes Suga, who rubber stamps Koizumi’s policies, even more irresponsible.
Thermal Power Remains Key
The latest strategic energy plan says that the target for nuclear power is around 20% of the total power supply. However, in reality, this figure was no higher than 6% in fiscal 2019.
Both Suga and Koizumi know the target of 20% to 22% nuclear power cannot be reached. Yet, they have proposed a policy dependent on that unrealistic nuclear power capacity.
Their stance is reflected in a renewable-energy plan put together by the environment ministry. The document talks about the development of new solar power-generation facilities, which are the equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants — or 20 gigawatts (20 GWh).
Japan already has the highest density of installed solar panels in the world. According to a website that specializes in international statistics, China is the number-one country in the world in terms of solar power generation, at 205 GW. Next is the United States at 62.3 GW, followed by Japan with 61.8 GW, and Germany at 49 GW.
If you adjust these figures according to the number of facilities per square kilometer, then Japan’s figure is eight times that of China and 23 times that of the U.S. — putting Japan at the top.
However, decarbonization is not conquered simply because you have solar power. In China, 720 grams of carbon dioxide is emitted in order to produce 1 kw/h of electricity. In the U.S., it is 440 grams, in Japan 540 grams, and in Germany 472 grams. This is because thermal power generation is needed as a part of the auxiliary power source.
According to the environment ministry, the cost of adding more solar power generation facilities to achieve the plan’s goals will be staggering. Japan spends ¥90 trillion JPY ($818 billion USD) in order to generate about 62 GWh of solar power, taking into account the fixed costs over 10 years and assuming the collection of fees from users. The public should be informed of the expense of this option.
Given that it costs ¥90 trillion JPY for about 62 GW, the cost of generating 20 GW is about ¥30 trillion JPY (about $273 billion USD). Such an increase will mean that solar power will make up 11% of total power, up slightly from 8.6%. This is a mere drop in the ocean, when one considers the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 46% by fiscal 2030 compared to fiscal 2013.
China is Laughing
The Prime Minister has set the green revolution and reforms related to renewable energy as pillars of his growth strategy for Japan. But looking at the latest strategic energy plan, solar power will result in extremely expensive electricity rates, which is not economically rational. The world’s most expensive electricity rates will just get more expensive.
The issue of climate change is a serious one that is linked to the nation’s industrial competitiveness and its national security.
Japan followed the U.S. on both the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, but the U.S. later withdrew from both, leaving Japan in the cold.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister has made a commitment inside and outside the country. As a result, Japan must use its accumulated wisdom in seeking ways to reach its target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In the process, though, Japan must not neglect its national interest, and it must try to maximize the use of its sophisticated technology.
For example, Japan has developed wonderful thermal power technology that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 17%. If Japan exports such technology to developing nations, then those countries will be able to make major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, which is good for the whole world. However, the government quickly blocked the export of this technology.
If Japan and western countries take their eye off the ball, then China will step in. Moreover, China plans to keep using coal-fired power generation on a large scale domestically.
China is simply laughing at the rest of us as its market share grows from the sale of components made with cheap electricity and cheap labor costs from the use of forced labor.
Filling In the Empty Energy Strategy
China’s market share is expanding in areas such as solar panels and electric vehicles — areas that Japan used to dominate. Japan’s industrial decline over the past 10 years is considerable. It has dropped to 30th position in terms of GDP per capita, which is the same as South Korea.
This cannot be tolerated. If we are talking about growth strategy, then Japan needs to be more proactive and driven on issues such as carbon dioxide emissions. What is needed is a smart combination of renewable energy and nuclear power.
The TEPCO nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011 led many Japanese people to have strong anti-nuclear feelings. But safety has improved considerably over the past 10 years. In order to make use of these technological and safety advancements, the construction of new nuclear power plants and rebuilding of current ones should be added to the strategic energy plan. Without it, Japan’s decline is inevitable.
It is unacceptable that Suga and Koizumi are letting Japan decline by issuing energy plans that have no strategy.
(Find access to the Sankei Shimbun column in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Yoshiko Sakurai
Find other essays by this journalist and opinion leader on JAPAN Forward at this link.