Renewable Energy in Japan – types and situations in Japan
Clean, renewable energy and the shift towards natural gas are helping to combat climate change which is becoming a real challenge globally. Adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a shared blueprint which consists of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an urgent call for action by all countries.
Japan has grown to become one of the world’s largest renewable energy markets after the earthquake and tsunami which damaged their nuclear power plant. The Japanese government has also developed policies that are aimed to boost the supply of renewables whilst the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) are responsible for developing and enforcing renewable energy laws and regulations in Japan.
What is Renewable Energy?
Renewable energy is energy that is generated from natural sources such as sunlight and wind, rather than from fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which are limited in supply. In addition to being a semi-permanent source of energy, renewable energy is one of the main ways to combat climate change as it doesn’t emit CO2.
Types of renewable energy
Renewable energy can be broadly divided into the following:
- Solar power
- Wind power
- Biomass power
- Geothermal power
Below we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of renewable energy as well as the current situation and challenges in Japan.
What is solar power?
Photovoltaic (PV) converts the energy of sunlight directly into batteries using solar cells. The advantages include a longer lifespan of the solar cells compared to other power generation systems, the lack of Amaintenance once installed, and the ease of installation by individuals as the system can be installed in any location. In Japan, where disasters are common, they are also used as an emergency power source. However, the disadvantages include the inability to be used at night, being weather-dependent, and are not as efficient at converting energy into electricity.
In the first half of 2020, the distribution of renewable energy in Japan's electricity generation is estimated to be 23.1%, with solar PV accounting for 9% of this. The widespread adoption of solar power in Japan can be attributed to the launch of the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) scheme in 2012. The FIT is a system whereby the government guarantees that power companies will purchase electricity generated from renewable sources at a certain price for a selected period of time.
One of the challenges however is the cost of installation. According to a report by the Renewable Energy Foundation, many installations cost over 200,000 yen per kW in 2018 although this has dropped to approximately 150,000 yen in 2021. Reducing costs through technological development will be key to further adoption in the coming years.
What is wind power
Wind power is another power generation method that has been gaining traction around the world. Particularly in Europe, governments are actively seeking to increase the amount of electricity generated by wind power. It is predicted that by 2027, wind power will be the largest source of electricity in terms of kWh.
The advantages of wind power include its efficiency in converting into electricity and its ability to operate both day and night. On the other hand, the disadvantage is that the output depends on the strength of the wind.
Over the last five years, there has been an increase in offshore wind turbines compared to the traditional onshore. Wind conditions are much better for offshore wind turbines compared to those onshore. In addition, offshore turbines are transported by ship which means lesser restrictions than those via onshore transportation.
The Japanese government has set a target of increasing the share of wind power generation to 1.7% of total electricity generation by 2030. But despite the shift towards offshore wind turbines, Japan still lags behind many countries in Europe. This is mainly due to the following:
- Shallow topography makes it easier to install wind turbines in Europe unlike Japan where the seabed is often abruptly deep, making installation difficult in many areas;
- The country is prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, so it takes time to verify any risks involved;
- No uniform rules have been established for the use of the area at sea;
- Groups of people such as the shipping industry or the fishing industry are already using certain areas at sea on a daily basis, but there is not a single mechanism that can identify them.
These factors have made it difficult to establish long-term prospects for the management and operation of the facilities which in turn creates extremely high barriers to entry for companies. However, with the enactment of the Law on the Utilisation of the Sea Area for Renewable Energies in 2019, the law is now gradually being developed. Of the 11 areas designated in the same year as having reached a certain stage of readiness, four promising areas are now in the bidding process, and construction work has begun on one of these, off the coast of Noshiro in Akita Prefecture, since February 2021. The project is undertaken by Akita Offshore Wind Power (AOW), of which Marubeni Corporation is the largest shareholder. This is expected to be commercially operational by the end of 2022.
What is hydropower?
Hydroelectric power generation uses the energy of water flowing from a high place to a low place (potential energy) to turn a water turbine in order to generate electricity. The advantages include a stable, long-term operation and just like wind power, there is a high energy conversion efficiency due to the use of turbines. On the downside, building a new power station can be time-consuming and costly, as it requires a lot of research and coordination with landowners.
Hydropower can be generated either by using a flowing river or by storing water in a dam. The latter has the advantage that it can be adjusted to generate power when there is little rain or water flow, or when demand for electricity is high.
Hydropower has long been popular in Japan, a country blessed with abundant water resources. There are more than 2,000 hydroelectric power stations across the country, and hydroelectric power accounts for the largest percentage at 10.3% out of 23.1% of Japan's electricity generated from renewable sources. Water storage via dams as mentioned above have been the most common type of power station in the past. But there has been a lot of construction of small and medium-sized hydropower plants using agricultural water, water and sewage systems (including river flows) in recent years.
One challenge that remains is the cost of new developments. There are more than 2,700 undeveloped sites, far greater than the current 2,000 hydropower sites under development. This shows that there is a lot of potential for development, but these sites are often deep in the mountains and not easily accessible.
What is biomass power?
Biomass power is a method of generating electricity by burning or turning biological resources (biomass) derived from plants and animals into gas. Biomass power has a number of advantages – including the ability to reduce waste by recycling waste from agriculture and livestock farming, as well as the ability to generate electricity regardless of weather conditions. However, the disadvantages are that resources are small and scattered, making them difficult to manage and collect.
Compared to other renewable energies, the share of electricity generated by biomass is still very low. In Japan, it accounts for 2.5% of electricity generated in 2021, and this same level is maintained in other countries around the world. In addition, biomass power generation in Japan mainly uses wood pellets, which are made from collected wood waste, and palm husks which are mainly imported. But it has become increasingly difficult to procure wood pellets as a raw material due to the aging forestry workers and the difficulty of logging on Japan's steep terrain. It is said that only 20% of the projects approved under the government's Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) scheme are in operation, which will make securing of raw materials a major challenge.
What is geothermal power?
Geothermal power is a method of generating electricity by extracting the geothermal heat stored underground as steam or hot water to turn a turbine. The advantages of this method include the ability to generate electricity on a large scale alongside a stable output regardless of the season, day or night. But the disadvantages include the long amount of time required for research and development, which can take up to 10 years, and the difficulty of reconciling interests in areas already used as hot springs or national parks. As most geothermal resources are located in areas that are already designated as national parks or known to be hot spring resorts, this makes it difficult to build geothermal power plants and even more challenging to develop geothermal resources on a large scale.
In addition, research and surveys can be very time-consuming. Most of the areas have either been developed or are currently under development have the problem of subsurface risk – the fact that while it is possible to identify resources using airborne sensors alongside various other means, the actual amount and condition of the resource remains unknown until the ground has been drilled which is a huge barrier to rapid deployment.
Japan is a volcanic country and the third largest geothermal resource in the world. However, geothermal power is yet to be widely available in Japan. The challenges are mainly due to the challenges and disadvantages mentioned above.
Future of renewable energy
The Japanese government has set a target of generating 22-24% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and this is growing steadily towards the target of 23.1% by 2020. As mentioned above, renewable energy is often costly and time-consuming to research, develop and maintain, making it difficult to pursue profitably, so government subsidies and support, as well as risk-reducing legislation, will be key.
Although thermal power generation using hydrogen as a fuel isn’t classified as a renewable energy source, it has attracted a lot of attention because of its low CO2 emissions. The high cost of hydrogen and other varying issues mean that it will take some time before it can be used as a power source, although it will still play an important role in promoting a carbon-neutral society.
As for the renewable energy industry, the development of power stations will continue to be dominated by joint projects with companies, governments, and local authorities, while technological innovations driven by the private sector would be needed to improve power generation efficiencies, such as solar panels and turbine components for wind turbines. The renewable energy market is expected to continue to grow in size as companies expand from traditional infrastructure businesses to new businesses, and as companies from other countries seek to enter the Japanese market. This will also result in an increase in the talent movement.
In the US and European countries, there is a growing focus on green careers (jobs in industries that contribute to CO2 reduction and environmental protection) and green skills (skills that can be applied in jobs that contribute to CO2 reduction and environmental protection). Renewable energy jobs are a future-oriented career option with great potential for growth.
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