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Japan Needs All Hands on Deck as It Starts ‘30-Year Race’ Towards Carbon Neutrality

The results of the decarbonization efforts will not only determine the global competitiveness of Japan’s companies, but will also make or break the power of our country.

Shunichi Takahashi

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When it comes to moving things forward, clear messages on policy must come from the top. There is an issue of late that has made me realize this even more.

That issue is the growing move towards decarbonization in Japan. In October 2020, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Japan’s “Carbon Neutral” policy of bringing greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of global warming, to net zero by 2050. Since then, both government and private sector sources have been releasing a steady stream of information on decarbonization.

The stage for these recent developments was set in July 2020. I believe that the announcement of the plan to decommission high-emitting aging coal-fired power plants by 2030 by Hiroshi Kajiyama, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, was a major influencing factor.

For a resource-poor country like Japan, coal is an important resource in terms of both the economy and energy security. It is low in price and widely distributed around the globe. The world’s confirmed reserves exceed 130 mineable years, and a stable supply can be expected over the long term. 

Moreover, the political climate in most coal-producing countries is stable, with over half of Japan’s coal imported from Australia. And it was coal-fired power that allowed us to maintain our power supply after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Although the announcement on phasing out coal-fired power was limited to aging and inefficient facilities, there is no doubt that many people realized the government was indeed getting serious.

The most important precondition for carbon neutrality is the reduction of CO2 emissions. Even the most state-of-the-art coal-fired power plants emit double the CO2 of liquid natural gas (LNG). So making advances in CO2 reduction is imperative, even at the coal-fired power plants not slated for decommissioning.

Alternatives to Coal-fired Power Plants

One method currently under examination involves an alternative use for ammonia, an ingredient in chemical fertilizers, that completely differs from its current use.

While hydrogen has garnered a lot of attention as a clean energy that emits no CO2 when burned, in fact ammonia can also be burned without emitting CO2. Ammonia has a slower combustion speed than hydrogen, making it more compatible to coal. Expectations are high that, if mixed with coal and used in existing facilities, carbon emissions can be reduced.

JERA, Japan’s largest power generation company and a joint venture for fuel procurement by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings and Chubu Electric Power, is one company planning for the gradual increase of co-firing with ammonia in thermal power generation. Chubu Electric has been exploring options in co-firing since 2016 and is set to begin preparations for the refitting of its demonstration facility at the Hekinan Thermal Power Station (Hekinan City, Aichi Prefecture) as early as 2022. It’s aim is to begin demonstration tests in fiscal year 2023.

JERA’s plans start with a 20% ammonia co-firing rate. Reportedly no precedents exist anywhere in the world for co-firing large volumes of ammonia at large-scale commercial power plants. 

“It is our mission to prepare the next technology that can be used at existing facilities,” says Mitsutaka Ban, executive officer and head of the research group at JERA’s Corporate Strategy Department. JERA has set its sights on generating power using ammonia alone 40 years from now.

Private-Public Cooperation Imperative 

Very little headway has been made globally on the utilization of ammonia as a green energy option. While insufficient supply and other supply chain issues remain, the earlier the utilization technology can be established, the greater Japan’s chances of gaining an upper hand internationally in the export of the technology.

According to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a United Kingdom-based think tank, over 120 countries and regions, including Japan, have declared their intent to be carbon neutral by 2050. The world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, also declared it would achieve the same by 2060. 

In this context, any delay in the development and introduction of new environmental technologies will result in an inability to compete in the global market.

Major leaps forward in technology innovation will be required in many fields to realize carbon neutrality, including use of hydrogen and other new energies, improved performance of storage cells and recycling of CO2. As a matter of course, the development of new technologies requires large amounts of time and expense, making it problematic for any one company to meet the challenge alone.

At a press conference on December 17, Eiji Hashimoto, chairman of the Japan Iron and Steel Federation and president of Nippon Steel, made a forthright call for national government support, asserting that research and development would “take 10 or 20 years, making it impossible for any individual company to maintain.” 

In an additional stimulus package put together in December, the government incorporated the establishment of a ¥2 trillion JPY fund to accelerate research and development in decarbonization. However, this plan will require both budgetary and tax system support moving forward.

With 2050 as the finish line for decarbonization, we now set off on a “30-year race.” This year will surely be the real start for Japanese companies. The results will not only determine the global competitiveness of Japan’s companies, but will also make or break the power of our country. The public and private sectors must work together as one to lead the world.

RELATED READ: Toward Zero Emissions: Working With Japan to Help Dehli’s Alarming Air Pollution 

(Find access to the original article in Japanese at this link.)

Shunichi Takahashi, Editor-in-Chief, Fuji Sankei Business