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Global coal phase-out raises viability questions about Japan plants

In this Dec. 27, 2018 photo, Yasuhiro Sugishita, right, explains the operation of the Isogo coal-fired thermal power station in Yokohama. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Concern about the dramatic impacts of climate change has led to a global shift away from using carbon-emitting coal for power generation, but in post-Fukushima Japan where nuclear remains a dirty word, coal is now king.

In committing to the Paris Climate Accord, Japan, the world's fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged that no effort would be spared in combating climate change and the government committed to a 26 percent emissions reduction by fiscal 2030.

However, the reduction was widely viewed as insufficient by environmental activists as it only represents an 18 percent cut compared with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's base year of 1990.

Despite the nation's Paris commitment, public sentiment against the use of nuclear power since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster has made it politically unpalatable to restart existing power stations.

In response, the Japanese government has shifted toward coal, with the construction of 50 new coal-fired power stations planned across the country since 2012.

A 2018 report from environmental NGO Climate Analytics said, "Japan already has 45 gigawatts of operating coal-fired generation capacity and plans to add about 18 gigawatts of new coal, of which 5 gigawatts are already under construction."

Electricity generation makes up around 40 percent of Japan's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report, and in 2016 more than half of the emissions, about 20 percent of the total, came from coal, "making it a major contributor to climate change."

"To be in line with the Paris Agreement, developed countries need to phase out coal from their energy systems by 2030, yet Japan appears to be going in the opposite direction," said the report's lead author Paola Yanguas Parra.

Despite renewable energy sources such as solar and wind combined with storage technology emerging as viable alternatives, Japan has continued to pursue coal, believed to emit twice as much carbon dioxide as even a natural gas-fired plant.

Even with push-back from the Environment Ministry, Japan's trade ministry has doubled-down, pushing for Japan to export new-generation coal-fired power generation technology that is considered relatively clean as compared to older systems.

One such plant is run by the Tokyo-based Electric Power Development Co., known as J-Power. The company operates what it describes as a low-carbon, high-efficiency operation at its Isogo coal-fired thermal power station in Yokohama.

The plant's "ultra-supercritical pressure" technology generates steam to rotate turbines and releases a relatively low amount of carbon dioxide, the operator said.

Public relations representative Yasuhiro Sugishita said that the plant is also equipped with activated carbon adsorption equipment, which collects some sulfur oxides in the exhaust gas, "achieving environmental countermeasures and power generation efficiency" that he claims is among the best in the world.

With the help of the Japanese trade ministry, the Isogo power station has drawn frequent visits from overseas observers. Among some 5,300 visitors in fiscal 2017 through March 2018, about 800 were from abroad. Many are government and power company officials from Asian countries such as China, Indonesia and Thailand.

Even though such technology is gaining traction abroad, in Japan coal-fired plants have begun to face headwinds. Of the 50 domestic projects launched since 2012, nine have foundered and more face challenges.

A coal-fired plant sponsored by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. and Chubu Electric Power Co. is going ahead in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo.

But it is facing local opposition.

"The plan entails air pollution by such contaminants as sulfur oxides," said Rikuro Suzuki, a 76-year-old co-head of a group opposing the planned construction. "The environment and public health should be given overriding priority," he said.

And the opposition extends even into the government and the business community.

Last year, the Environment Ministry warned the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that its environmental assessments of new coal-fired power plants planned in such prefectures as Ehime in the west and Akita in the northeast may need to be reassessed if no clear road map to minimize carbon emissions is laid out.

Kansai Electric Power Co. abandoned a plan to convert an existing facility in Ako, Hyogo Prefecture, to coal in January 2017 as a response to the need to drive down carbon emissions.

In a reflection of worldwide trends, investment in coal-fired plants in Japan has also begun to dry up.

Institutional investors, including Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank and Nippon Life Insurance Co., have said they would refrain from making new investments or providing finance to coal-burning power generators.

But according to Climate Analytics, the trend is not widespread enough.

"If Japan's emissions trajectory from its current energy and investment plans for coal were to continue, it would overshoot its Paris Agreement emissions budget for coal in the electricity sector by 292 percent by 2050."

Hajime Yamamoto, a 32-year-old researcher at Kiko Network, a nonprofit environmental organization, adds, "Construction of new coal-fired power generation plants will be a heavy drag on long-term efforts to fight global warming."

"The government should quickly switch to a policy of promoting a coal phase-out," he said.

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