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Japan After Fukushima

EcoBeat Staff – Japan has been facing an energy crisis ever since the earthquake and resulting tsunami in 2011 that critically damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactors. At the time, the country relied on nuclear energy for nearly 30% of its needs, with plans to increase that number to 50% by 2030. Following the nuclear accident, Japan took the precautionary step of taking its 48 nuclear reactors offline, decimating both the domestic economy and environmental commitments as suddenly 84% of energy requirements were met by fossil fuel imports.

Nuclear Energy Protesters

Nuclear Protesters in Tokyo 2011
Courtesy: Steve Herman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The nation’s history with nuclear is a complicated one, from destruction in the 1940s to the promise of energy independence at the turn of the 21st century. Polls in 2014 found that 60% of respondents in Japan were against restarting the Sendai nuclear power plants in the wake of continued mismanagement of the Fukushima clean up. Despite the lack of public support, court orders in April 2015 gave permission for both Sendai reactors to restart. Of the remaining 43 operable nuclear reactors, 24 have initiated the process for restarting operations in the coming years.

Why?

The Japanese islands are just slightly smaller than the state of California yet there are 904 people per square mile in Japan, compared to California’s 239. Natural resources are also significantly lacking on the Japanese islands, which has historically led the country to depend on fossil fuel imports. The country had planned to utilize nuclear energy extensively because of the huge energy generation potential and small land-area requirement of the reactors. By suddenly shutting down the network of reactors in the wake of 2011, the long-term independence and sustainability of Japan’s energy supply was thrown in to jeopardy. The Japanese Government and utility executives believe that with the proper safeguards in place, nuclear energy can still be a cornerstone of the country’s power production in the coming years.

What About Renewables?

 

Aikawa Solar Power Plant

1 MW Solar Plant in Aikawa
Courtesy: Σ64 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Up until 2011, Japan did not have plans for large-scale solar and wind energy projects because of nuclear energy’s promise. Since then, a number of pilot projects and utility scale power plants have come online. A recent partnership between Kyocera and Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation saw abandoned gold courses in Kyoto and Kagoshima prefectures converted into massive solar fields, producing enough electricity for 8,100 households. The success of the project has spurred another joint venture in Kagoshima province that would be more than three times that size.

Kyocera has been at the forefront of many of Japan’s largest renewable energy ventures, highlighting the potential for floating solar farms on reservoirs in Kagoshima prefecture back in 2013. That project demonstrated the efficiency of the solar panels is complimented by the natural cooling effect of the shaded water beneath them. Since then, Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation has joined the floating solar farm business by partnering with Kyocera on an even larger project in Chiba prefecture that would provide electricity for 4,700 homes.

A pilot program for floating wind turbines has entered its second phase off the Fukushima coast; however, the project has faced many difficulties, making the cost of widespread adoption unpalatable.

What’s next for Japan?

While the solar projects offer a glimmer of hope, the reality is that the island nation is strapped for land to install solar and wind farms on. According to studies by the USDA, Japan currently imports 60% of its food because it doesn’t have enough land to feed its population. Even with the population expected to decrease to around 100 million by 2050, the amount of land available for renewable energy projects like solar and wind will remain severely limited.

Barring a breakthrough in solar efficiency in alternative forms like glass, Japan has little choice but to invest in nuclear if energy independence and meeting carbon emissions targets are to be part of their future.

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