Earth Policy Institute, April 07,
2011 - Nearly four weeks after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake
and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, emergency personnel are
still struggling to stabilize the disabled Fukushima Daiichi
nuclear power plant.
Beyond the immediate need to minimize
further radioactive leakage and protect public health, the
government is beginning to reconsider its long-term plans for
nuclear power expansion. International media coverage has typically
assumed that Japan must expand its electricity generation from
coal, oil, and natural gas if nuclear is no longer an option.
But the leaders in Tokyo do not have to be
restricted to just these choices. A review of Japan's geothermal,
wind, and solar energy potential shows that domestic renewable
resources could easily power the world's third-largest
The aftermath of the two natural disasters has brought into sharp
focus the vulnerability of a nation currently reliant on imports to
meet the vast majority of its energy needs. Japan imports all the
uranium used to fuel its nuclear reactors, which account for 11
percent of its energy consumption.
And Japan is the world's top importer of
both coal and natural gas, which make up 21 percent and 17 percent
of its energy use. It is also the third-ranking oil importer.
Consumed largely in the transportation sector, oil accounts for 46
percent of Japan's energy use. The remainder comes from renewable
sources, mostly hydropower. Altogether, Japan spends some $160
billion a year importing all of its coal and uranium and virtually
all of its oil and natural gas.
Considering the risks inherent in nuclear power,
the chronic political instability gripping some key oil-producing
regions, and the climate volatility and pollution-related disease
resulting from continued fossil fuel use, Japan's current energy
economy is far from secure. The good news is that energy from the
earth, the wind, and the sun can change this picture
Located along the tectonically active Pacific Ring of Fire, with
nearly 200 volcanoes and some 28,000 hot springs, Japan is one of
the world's most geothermally rich countries. Using conventional
technologies, geothermal energy could provide over 80,000 megawatts
of electricity-generating capacity-enough to meet half of the
country's electricity needs.
But with the modern enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology
now available, Japan's geothermal potential could be far greater.
To give a sense of the possibilities, a U.S. Geological Survey study of
geothermal resources in the United States found that EGS increased
estimated U.S. geothermal power potential 13-fold.
Despite this vast resource, Japan has developed just 536
megawatts of geothermal capacity since the first utility-scale
plant came on-line in Iwate Prefecture in 1966. (See data.) In a given year,
geothermal provides less than 1 percent of Japan's electricity.
What makes this particularly surprising is that three Japanese
firms-Fuji, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi-produce two thirds of the
world's geothermal turbines.
Similarly, Japan's enormous wind energy potential has hardly
been tapped. At the end of 2010 Japan had installed 2,300 megawatts
of wind capacity, enough to power 700,000 Japanese homes. The
official goals for 2020 and 2030 are 10,000 and 20,000 megawatts,
respectively, with the latter capacity equal to 6 percent of
Japan's current electricity consumption.
But a 2009 study published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that
Japan's land-based wind resources could provide half of its
electricity. If harnessable offshore wind resources are included,
the wind energy potential far exceeds current electricity
Japan's most ambitious renewable energy goals are those for
solar photovoltaics (PV), mostly in rooftop panels. Among the world
leaders in installed PV capacity, Japan connected an estimated 900
megawatts to the grid in 2010, bringing its total capacity to more
than 3,500 megawatts.
By 2020, Japan aims to increase this eightfold, to 28,000
megawatts, with a goal of 53,000 megawatts by 2030. This would be
sufficient to power 18 million Japanese homes.
Solar PV in Japan owes its recent rapid growth to strong
policies promoting its adoption. For example, the government covers
up to 35 percent of a home PV system's installation costs. A
requirement that utilities pay homeowners a premium for electricity
fed back into the grid by renewable energy systems-known as a
feed-in tariff or FIT-makes residential PV even more
Begun in mid-2009, Japan's FIT rate for PV is about twice what a
resident would normally pay for a kilowatt-hour of electricity.
Moreover, with technology improvements and further installations
under the national PV 2030+ initiative, the government aims to make
solar PV among the cheapest electricity options available.
While PV appears to be on its way to widespread adoption,
multiple obstacles have impeded wind and geothermal power. One
important constraint is the disproportionate funding for energy
research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) allocated to
the various technologies. Geothermal has received absolutely no
RD&D funding from the government since 2002. Wind receives
roughly $10 million per year. In stark contrast, nuclear power gets
$2.3 billion per year.
Geography has also constrained geothermal and wind development.
Japan's best land-based wind resources are in northern and southern
prefectures, whereas demand is highest in the middle of the
country. Thus electrical grid and transmission expansion will be
necessary to fully harness Japan's wind energy.
With geothermal, much of the potential capacity lies within
national parks and has been declared unavailable under conservation
laws passed in the 1970s. But because geothermal projects can be
developed without significant negative environmental impacts, the
government may want to revisit this policy.
Beyond being adequate to meet Japan's current electricity needs
many times over, geothermal and wind energy could also displace
much of the expensive imported oil now used in transportation.
Japan already has impressive rail ridership compared with other
The key now is to shift more road freight to electrified rail,
increase the use of light rail and metro subways within cities, and
accelerate the replacement of conventional cars with plug-in
hybrids and all-electric vehicles-and to run them all largely on
electricity generated from renewable sources.
As Japan recovers and rebuilds from the disastrous earthquake
and tsunami, the country will have to decide whether to rely even
more heavily on inherently risky nuclear power and imported fossil
fuels or to chart a new energy course. If the nation turned to
renewables instead of fossil fuels and nuclear power, it would be
investing in the health, energy security, and economic well-being
of its people.
In addition to avoiding the risk of future radioactive
contamination of air, water, and crops, Japan would save tens of
billions of dollars annually on imported energy. It would also
nurture its already formidable renewable energy manufacturing
industries. Japan was second only to China in PV manufacturing in
2009, and, as noted, Japanese companies dominate global geothermal
Clearly, Japan does not have to settle for sources of energy
that either pose a radioactive risk or destabilize the earth's
climate. By fully committing to wind, solar, and geothermal, Japan
could cancel all planned nuclear and fossil fuel power plants,
replace the existing ones, and power its transportation system with
carbon-free domestic energy.
© 2011 Earth Policy Institute