Japan eyes nuclear in energy plan

The Japanese government’s initial proposals for a basic energy plan, set for release Friday, will likely prioritise nuclear power as a key source of electricity, but will not clarify the precise role that renewable resources will play in the nation’s energy mix.

The draft, scheduled for completion by the end of the month, comes in the face of widespread public opposition to nuclear power generation in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011.

“We would like to expedite efforts to decommission Japan’s nuclear power plants,” Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF) director Mika Ohbayashi said at a press conference in Tokyo today.

Japan generated roughly 30% of its electricity from nuclear resources until the Fukushima accident forced a nationwide rethink on energy policy.

The country closed the last of its 50 nuclear reactors for maintenance in May 2012. The government has since ramped up expensive imports of coal and natural gas to make up for the energy shortfall caused by those closures.

Now, ballooning energy costs are likely behind the government’s anticipated push to restart some of these shuttered facilities. Keidanren, the nation’s most powerful and influential business lobby, also strongly favours the use of nuclear power as a means of achieving energy security.

However, nuclear energy may be more expensive than the government says, if decommissioning expenses and other costs are accounted for, according to JREF, which advocates a “zero nuclear economic growth strategy.”

The foundation, launched by Softbank chief executive Masayoshi Son in September 2011, estimates nuclear costs at ¥17.4 yen ($0.17) per kWh, versus a 2011 government estimate of ¥8.9 yen per kWh.

In April, the Japanese government reduced its feed-in tariff (FIT) for solar to ¥37.8 per kWh from ¥42 over 20 years, but left its rates unchanged for other renewable resources. Onshore and offshore wind developments currently enjoy the same FIT rate of ¥23.1 yen per kWh over 20 years, but a government panel is now studying the possibility of introducing a separate offshore FIT to spur development.

The solar FIT, in particular, has triggered a PV development boom in Japan since its introduction in July 2012. The nation installed 2.12GW of PV plants and about 1.38GW of residential solar in the 12 months from July 2012, according to figures from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

Renewable resources still only account for a fraction of Japan’s total energy mix. And the energy proposals set for release today may not include percentage targets for different energy resources for several more years, Japanese media has quoted METI chief Toshimitsu Motegi as saying.

But globally, the cost of PV installations “have quickly decreased,” said JREF executive board chair Tomas Kåberger, noting that solar costs stood at the equivalent of roughly ¥80 per kWh in Germany at the turn of this century. “Now the prices for solar installations there are down at the level of around ¥10 per kWh for both rooftops and ground-mount (projects).”

Renewables can be cost-competitive in Japan, he argued today. “It’s now a global development, made possible by the cost decreases achieved by German households paying for the rapid industrialisation (of solar power),” he said.

"Japan is a couple of years behind, but I believe this country will soon pick up in reducing costs. And if you can just get legislation that is open to the market for new installations, so the rate of investment can increase, and experience can be gained, costs will drop even faster. And this will become a significant part of the Japanese electricity supply.”