Rising Sun: The Quiet Force Behind Japan's Renewables Revolution

Photo: Stephan Röhl (CC).

This past summer, just over a year after the Fukishima nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011, Japan implemented legislation designed to drive rapid adoption of solar, wind, and other renewable-energy sources. A recent report estimates that in just two months, the feed-in-tariff policy has already unleashed more than $2 billion of solar investment.

That likely pleases Tetsunari Iida—one of Japan’s most prominent renewable energy advocates and anti-nuclear activists, and the original author of the new feed-in-tariff legislation. Iida directs the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, an influential think tank. With the backing of Masayoshi Son, Japan’s wealthiest person, he has been a political force to be reckoned with in the post-Fukushima era.

How have Japanese attitudes toward nuclear power changed since the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and where does energy stand as an issue of concern relative to health-care or the economy?

The vast majority of Japanese now do not trust the government or the electricity industry. Most of them hope that nuclear will be phased out, and they know they can survive without nuclear. Meanwhile, the electricity industry and the heavy-industry sectors—the so-called “nuclear allies”—hope to keep nuclear power. They say we need it for energy security, for cheaper electricity, and so on. I would say the discussion at the moment is mixed. As time goes by, and as more people are anxious about the economy or electricity, or security, so a more mixed discussion has come about regarding nuclear phase-out.

Nuclear represents a significant amount of power that will need replacing. How does Japan propose to do so?

Nuclear is now mostly shut down; only two nuclear reactors out of 50 are running, so nuclear is now less than one percent of our power. The majority of replacement is from the so-called “negawatt,” or energy efficiency, during peak periods in large cities like Tokyo or Osaka. Energy efficiency has replaced between 15 and 20 percent of our peak-power needs. Coal-fired power is the same as before [the Fukishima disaster], at about 25 percent, and natural gas about 30 to 35 percent. The rest for peak load—the periods of greatest demand—is from oil-fired power plants, which are the most costly. In the future, we expect to meet 10 percent of our new energy needs through efficiency measures. That’s ambitious, but in other countries like Germany it’s an accelerating trend, and therefore could be possible.

Thanks to Japan’s new  feed-in tariff policy, for the next three years your utilities will be paying some of the highest rates for solar power anywhere in the world. How did the program come about?

I originally drafted the feed-in-tariff law 12 years ago, but the government—especially the economic ministries and also the electricity industry—were strongly against promoting renewables, and wished to keep nuclear. But after [Fukishima], the feed-in tariff law passed, and the majority of people support renewables. The high tariff was both a mixture of the Japanese solar-panel manufacturing industry lobbying the government, and also the parliament introducing special provisions for the first three years designed to accelerate the adoption of renewables.

Our province of Ontario also passed a feed-in tariff program, back in 2009. Few expected the local opposition to certain types of renewable power, particularly wind. There’s a ferociously strong landowner-based opposition movement, which has really slowed down the development of wind power in Ontario. Do you anticipate that happening in Japan as well?

Wind power, especially, has a huge visual impact on the landscape, and impacts like noise, and other impacts on nature. But compared to the environmental damage caused from other kinds of power generation, wind power is relatively better. The visual scale of it, though, can impact social acceptance. We need more zoning for wind power, like in nordic countries and Germany, zoning that wind-power developers and conservation groups should together agree to. We should meet the principles of community power, in that local communities should have some ownership of those projects, and should be at the center of the decision-making process. Social and economic benefits should also go to local communities.

The word setsuden describes the culture of extreme energy conservation that has swept Japan since Fukishima. How would you characterize public attitudes towards conservation?

It has been very successful. Last summer in Tokyo we achieved a 20 percent cut to peak power demand, and this year in Osaka and the Kansai area we saw cuts of 15 percent without any compulsory conservation measures. It originally came from a kind of Japanese mind-set for enduring difficult circumstances—like we should just bear the hot summer without any air conditioning. Now people understand that energy saving does not necessarily translate to having to “endure” something. Now they understand that we can keep the same energy services while saving much more electricity. More and more people have shifted their mindset.

As we say here in Canada, we want energy efficiency but we still want cold beer and hot showers. Are you saying that the Japanese can still have their cold beer and hot showers, while still reducing overall energy consumption?

At the beginning, many people thought that we wouldn’t have our cold beer or hot showers. But now the people are finding ways to achieve energy savings while keeping the same energy services. People are finding ways to be more economical and efficient.

Ed Whittingham is the executive director of The Pembina Institute.

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