Sun set­ting on Ja­pan so­lar boom

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

The sun is set­ting on Ja­pan’s clean-en­ergy boom, de­spite projects like a mas­sive float­ing so­lar farm near Tokyo, as the gov­ern­ment cuts sub­si­dies and bets on nu­clear and coal­fired power, crit­ics say. Work­ers at the float­ing power sta­tion, one of the world’s big­gest, have just fin­ished lay­ing about 50,000 in­ter­con­nected pan­els on a vast dam reser­voir. Tak­ing up space equiv­a­lent to sev­eral Tokyo Dome-sized base­ball sta­di­ums, the vast car­pet of pan­els will sup­ply power to about 5,000 homes from early 2018.

The project is the cen­ter­piece of a so­lar-dom­i­nated wave of re­new­able en­ergy in­vest­ments that fol­lowed the 2011 Fukushima nu­clear dis­as­ter. The ac­ci­dent forced the shut­down of re­ac­tors that had sup­plied about one-quar­ter of re­sour­ce­poor Ja­pan’s en­ergy. To plug the gap, elec­tric­ity providers have been obliged since 2012 to buy power gen­er­ated from green sup­pli­ers, in­clud­ing so­lar, at above-mar­ket rates - known as feed-in tar­iffs - fixed by the gov­ern­ment each year.

But re­new­able en­ergy in­vest­ments have plateaued and are set to fall in the com­ing years as Tokyo cuts back sub­si­dies while com­modi­ties in­clud­ing coal, oil and nat­u­ral gas re­main cheap. Ja­pan is also fac­ing a short­age of land for new so­lar in­stal­la­tions.

Ky­ocera, which is be­hind the float­ing farm south of Tokyo, is build­ing a so­lar plant on an aban­doned golf course. “Sev­eral dy­nam­ics in the Ja­panese power sec­tor have shifted since (2012) such as weak­en­ing gov­ern­ment sup­port, cheaper fuel al­ter­na­tives and elec­tric­ity sec­tor re­form which have all con­trib­uted to the slow­down in growth,” BMI Re­search said in a re­port.

Some say Ja­pan’s fu­ture so­lar po­ten­tial now sits squarely on the roofs of mil­lions of homes. “There is still a big po­ten­tial for the Ja­panese mar­ket,” said At­suhiko Hi­rano, head of So­lar Fron­tier, a unit of Ja­panese oil gi­ant Showa Shell. “Util­ity-scale projects have been the driver so far. In con­trast, the res­i­den­tial mar­ket has not grown so much. So there is still much more area where we can grow. “(But) we are push­ing the gov­ern­ment to go fur­ther.”

So­lar ac­counts for a small frac­tion of Ja­pan’s en­ergy mix - 3.3 per­cent in 2015. But Tokyo has said it wants re­new­ables - also in­clud­ing hy­dro and wind power - to ac­count for 22 to 24 per­cent of the to­tal by 2030. Crit­i­cal gov­ern­ment sup­port ap­pears to be wan­ing, how­ever, as Tokyo drives a push to restart moth­balled atomic re­ac­tors - an un­pop­u­lar move among the nu­clear-wary pub­lic. The pro-nu­clear drive is sup­ported by utilities, which com­plained about be­ing forced to buy and dis­trib­ute sub­si­dized power, es­pe­cially with oil and nat­u­ral gas prices at multi-year lows.

Ja­pan is also rais­ing eye­brows with plans to in­vest bil­lions of dol­lars at home and abroad in new power plants fired by cheap coal - even as it calls for more green power at home. That in­cludes half a dozen large coal-fired power sta­tions within about 100 km of Tokyo, which Green­peace has branded “sim­ply in­sane” over health con­cerns posed by air pol­lu­tion.

Coal is also the big­gest cli­mate change cul­prit, gen­er­at­ing more car­bon pol­lu­tion per unit of en­ergy gen­er­ated than oil or gas. Within the G7 club of rich na­tions, Ja­pan is alone in in­vest­ing heav­ily in coal-fired en­ergy on its own soil, with more than 40 new power plants in the pipe­line. That sets it apart from even big pol­luters such as China and In­dia which are push­ing away from coal-fired power al­though US Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump has vowed to bring back coal and re­fo­cus US en­ergy pol­icy on fos­sil fu­els. “Ja­pan is bet­ting its econ­omy and en­ergy se­cu­rity on risky coal in­vest­ments,” said Tay­lor Dims­dale, Wash­ing­ton-based head of re­search at en­ergy think-tank E3G. “The coal development pipe­line in the rest of the G7 coun­tries has dried up with no fur­ther plants ex­pected be­yond a hand­ful of projects that are al­ready un­der con­struc­tion.” Ja­pan was among the worst per­form­ers in terms of coun­tries cut­ting back on en­ergy-re­lated CO2 emis­sions in an an­nual rank­ing re­leased dur­ing UN cli­mate talks in Novem­ber. Crit­ics say they don’t have much hope for Tokyo’s long-term com­mit­ment to re­new­able en­ergy. “After the Fukushima dis­as­ter there was an in­fat­u­a­tion with re­new­able en­ergy and the gov­ern­ment was clearly press­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tor,” said Kimiko Hi­rata, in­ter­na­tional direc­tor for the Ja­panese NGO Kiko Net­work. — AFP

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