Japan has no choice but to make fundamental changes to its energy policy. Weren't we all convinced of that when the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant broke out seven years ago, and we were faced with the horrors and the massive impact of a nuclear disaster?
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And yet, time has passed with little change in policy or society. Rather, whether out of sheer inertia or habit, the past seven years have been spent on maintaining nuclear power plants.
Steps are being taken toward resuming the operation of nuclear reactors that had been halted, and though permitting the continued use of aging reactors had once been an exception, it is becoming more the rule. Japan also keeps holding out hope for the nuclear fuel cycle, which has repeatedly proven to be a failure.
The process by which policy decisions are being made has not changed, which means there is no framework through which to turn the public's desire to break free from its dependence on nuclear power into reality. Although Japan's "Basic Energy Plan" maintains that the country will "lower dependence on nuclear power," it also regards nuclear power as "an important baseload electricity source." Moreover, some engaged in the ongoing discussions to review the plan have not only suggested the rebuilding of aging nuclear plants, but the construction of new and additional facilities.
While debate over energy policy in the very country that caused the 2011 nuclear disaster has stalled, energy policy around the world has seen great changes.
Last year, the global cumulative installed capacity of solar power amounted to a total of around 400 gigawatts, while that of wind-generated power reached approximately 540 gigawatts, which was an increase of 10 times and 2.5 times, respectively, since 2010. The installed capacities of such renewable energy surpass that of not only nuclear power, but also of coal-fired thermal power.
One reason for this change is that costs relating to renewable power have dropped. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), since 2010, solar-power generation has dropped in cost by 70 percent, while wind-power generation has dropped by 25 percent. The IEA predicts that there will be a worldwide energy shift, in which coal will cease to be the major supplier of power, as it is overtaken by renewable energy sources.
In contrast to the growth seen in renewable energy, the proportion of the world's total power generation accounted for by nuclear energy has been falling since it peaked in the 1990s, and now stands at around 10 percent.
It is true that new nuclear power reactors are being built in countries such as China and India, but it would be ill-advised to take that fact alone as evidence that the world's nuclear power industry is growing. The aging of nuclear reactors is progressing in major industrialized nations. As a result of toughened safety measures in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the cost of building nuclear reactors has ballooned, making the construction of new or additional nuclear facilities difficult even among major consumers of nuclear power such as France and the U.S. That's even truer in Japan.
Probably the most accurate take of the world's nuclear power market is that it is on the decline. Even China, which is marginally supporting the nuclear energy market, is increasingly being seen as a major force behind the expansion of renewable energy, more so than nuclear power. Japan, which is stubbornly trying to maintain nuclear power, is already falling behind global trends.
There is, however, a slight hint that change may be afoot within the Japanese government.
First, there has been a shift in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At a gathering for the International Renewable Energy Agency, Foreign Minister Taro Kono voiced his regret over the lack of a shift in Japan's energy policy toward renewable energy. A report released in February by an expert panel consulted by the foreign minister explicitly stated, "The notion that nuclear and coal-fired power are necessary as baseload electricity sources to secure a stable supply of power is a thing of the past," adding that expanding renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency were top priorities.
Objections are expected to arise from the prime minister's office and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which insist on keeping nuclear power a baseload power source. But we have come to a point where even METI cannot avoid addressing renewable energy, evidenced in a meeting of experts set up at the end of last year to discuss the introduction of massive amounts of renewable energy and power grid reform.
Under current regulations, when renewable energy producers try to link to existing power transmission lines, they are often turned away for the reason that there are "no openings." This occurs because of a rule that power transmission lines must be kept open to the fullest to prepare for accidents, and out of consideration for electricity that will be transmitted by power plants whose operations are currently stopped or are in the planning stages.
Internationally, however, there is more flexibility in the use of transmission lines, allowing for more expansion of renewable energy. Japan may be lagging far behind the rest of the world, but we welcome the consideration that is finally being given to the renewable energy market in Japan, and urge the powers that be to make reforms for the efficient use of power transmission lines that suit actual flows of electricity.
Of course, there are many obstacles to such change. For example, realizing the large-volume injection of a variable power source like renewable energy will require making scrupulous adjustments to supply and demand using weather forecast technology. To adjust for varied supply, there will be a need to secure pumped-storage hydroelectricity and thermal power. The release of information and data possessed by major utilities is also crucial.
In the case that power transmission lines need to be increased or reinforced, renewable energy producers may be required to foot the massive costs, which raises concerns that potential newcomers will be discouraged from entering the renewable energy industry. Such roadblocks need to be reconsidered. The development of batteries that can store power when amounts exceeding demand are generated is another challenge. Efforts to bring renewable energy generation costs down to international levels are indispensable.
Assessing global trends, which power sources should we invest our limited resources in? The answer is crystal clear if we look squarely at reality.