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Editorial: Time is now to convert Japan's electricity supply core to renewables

Summer and winter electricity shortages are becoming chronic in Japan. Increased demand put pressure on the power supply in January this year, especially in Tokyo and the Kansai region in the west, and we are worried the same will happen next winter.

    Stopgaps to alleviate this supply crunch have their limits. Looking ahead to the age of no coal power, the Japanese government should build a stable electricity system with renewable energy at its core.

    The electricity supply must be at least 3% greater than demand to be considered stable. According to a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimate, Japan's power supply will just barely meet this standard this summer. However, if a once-in-a-decade cold winter hits, then the area covered by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings could come under severe demand pressure in January and February next year.

    Worried about blackouts, the government is apparently planning to temporarily restart coal-fired power plants as an emergency stopgap. Excluding the island prefecture of Okinawa, western Japan is expected to just barely meet the 3% surplus standard.

    Behind all this is the suspension and decommissioning of aging thermal power plants. After Japan's electricity market was liberalized, the increased competition made it impractical for utilities to keep decrepit thermal plants and their worsening profit margins online.

    The volume of electricity generated by power plants burning oil -- the most expensive of all thermal plant fuels -- has dropped by some 10 million kilowatts over the past five years, equivalent to taking 10 nuclear reactors offline. And the decarbonization trend has accelerated Japan's move to ditch carbon dioxide-emitting coal.

    To prevent the shuttering of thermal plants from going too far, too fast, the industry ministry is considering implementing a system obligating utilities to report plant closures to the government in advance. However, how to cover the costs of keeping worn out plants open remains a problem. The policy would also run directly counter to the government's anti-global warming policy.

    There are voices in the government and ruling parties calling for more active use of nuclear energy, as it does not emit CO2 when generating power. But this runs up against strong public distrust of atomic energy. Also, according to industry ministry calculations, solar power will be Japan's cheapest source of electricity by 2030. As keeping nuclear plants safe is costly, continuing with atomic energy defies economic logic as well.

    Achieving both a stable and decarbonized power supply is the crucial point in the revision of the Japanese government's basic energy plan. We call on the plan's drafters not to take the easy route to the revival of nuclear power, but to focus on building a system for a stable electricity supply using renewable energy to the greatest extent possible.

    The generating capacity of renewables like solar can vary significantly depending on the weather, which is a weak point. However, if storage battery technology advances, renewables could become a stable source of electricity. To make up any of these green options' shortcomings, Japan could lean on the most advanced thermal generation technologies, designed to limit CO2 emissions. Japan needs to shift to this kind of energy strategy.

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