Japan’s uncertain energy future

Following the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, energy issues have come to the fore of public discussion in Tokyo: nuclear power generation (and its share in the energy mix) remains the subject of bitter controversy. Despite the public’s overwhelming concern about the risks involved by nuclear plants, political will to phase them out has been undermined by the 18%-increase on household energy bills while energy imports continue to worsen Japan’s trade deficit.

Political manoeuvre or genuine change of course?

Before the general election in the winter of 2012, the Democratic Party of Japan announced it would plan to abandon nuclear power by 2040. This campaign statement in September did not dispel doubts on the sustainability of the country’s energy mix, as evidenced by another statement made by the then minister of economy Yukio Edano, quoted in the French newspaper Le Monde: “We will never remove previously delivered authorizations for the building of new reactors”. Besides, in the course of the summer of 2012, the department of industry had published a forecast study including several scenarios for meeting energy demand (see chart below). Uncertainty about Japan’s energy future was therefore widespread when Liberal Democrat Shinzo Abe took over as prime minister, making a nuclear phase-out all the more unlikely.

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According to Usine Nouvelle, the newly appointed minister of industry Toshimitsu Motegi (Liberal Democratic Party) is expected to set forth an energy plan by the end of the year. To better understand where Japan stands, it is worth mentioning theKPMG Global Energy Competitiveness Index published in November 2012 which ranked it 119th for energy mix quality, noting “a balanced strategy despite structural deficiencies”; energy supply falls far short of matching Japan’s status as the world’s third largest economy. An explanation for this can be found in the share of oil in the energy mix and that of renewables in domestic electricity production. However, the study assesses rather positively the efficiency of the country’s energy policy, taking into account grid access, frequency of power outages and business environment. Japan thus ranks 25th out of 146 countries in the survey’s general index.

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Alternatives for Japan

But government efforts do not target only grid and infrastructure quality, as an article in 20Minutes reads: Japan moving towards renewable energy revolution after Fukushima. According to the daily newspaper, under the previous government a renewable energy bill was passed in July 2012, “forcing Japanese power companies to buy electricity derived from solar panels, wind turbines and biomass above market prices”. The department of industry hopes this measure will boost the renewable energy sector, whose share in Japan’s energy mix was only 3.6% in 2008, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency. The law firm White & Case LLP indicates that “Japan’s wind power industry will see major growth in installations similar to the increase in solar power the nation saw last year”. According to Bloomberg, experts think this policy could curb Japan’s fossil fuel dependency.

This being said, recent findings reported by French newspaper La Tribune cast doubt on Japan’s ambition to de-carbonize its energy mix. Minister of industry Motegi welcomed progress made by the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (Jogmec) research programme exploring the exploitation of offshore methane hydrate, also known as “fire ice”.  Finally, according to the expert on Japan’s energy policy Paul J. Scalise in the French weekly Challenges, “the tragedy which occurred on March 11th 2011 forced Japan to pause on or even to leave the path towards all-out nuclear power”; however he reminds readers that “the Japanese people sees a war in the Strait of Hormuz and the following oil shortage as more of an immediate threat than another tsunami”. This set of economic, technological and psychological circumstances has a strong bearing on future changes in the energy mix and makes forecasts difficult; therefore it remains to be seen whether or not the land of the rising sun will be home to a renewable energy boom.

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