Japan’s Shift to Renewable Energy Loses Power

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The drive toward ambitious targets for the use of renewable fuels has been slowed by resistance from utilities and concerns about the costs of renewable-energy projects at a time of cheap fossil-fuel imports, as well as the projects’ safety and environmental impact.

Many reassurances later, developers plan to dig the first exploratory well this fall for a possible geothermal plant near Mount Bandai in Fukushima, about 130 miles north of Tokyo. Even if the results are promising, it would take about 10 years for a plant to start operating on the site.

Before the Fukushima accident, resource-poor Japan depended on nuclear plants for about 30% of its power. Now, with nearly all of the 50-odd nuclear plants in the country still shut down in the wake of the accident, the country gets 1% of its energy from nuclear power. Cheap coal and natural gas, nearly all imported, have filled the void, together comprising more than 75% of Japan’s energy needs in the year ended in March, compared with 54% before the accident.

Fierce opposition to reopening nuclear plants and growing reliance on foreign energy sources would suggest a huge opening for renewables. Yet renewables made up just 14% of energy production in the year ended in March, up from 10% before Fukushima. That has advocates worried that the government’s goal of having renewables provide 22% to 24% of Japan’s energy needs by 2030 is slipping out of reach.

Decades of development have built up Japan’s hydroelectric-power capacity, but there are few potential sites left for large-scale plants. Biomass plants struggle with low efficiency in transforming fuel into power. Sea wave and tidal power, which would seem like a natural energy source for the island nation, has been held back by the projected price tag and concerns about potential environmental damage.

Meanwhile, deregulation of the power market has driven utilities to seek low-cost fuels as they fight for customers in a country where electricity demand is projected to stay flat through 2020. Japanese companies now plan to increase the number of coal-burning power stations in the country by almost 50% in the next 12 years, even as the U.S. and Europe shun the emissions-heavy fuel.

Now, the government is offering financial support for exploratory drilling and opening up more land in national parks for surveys. Those changes have set in motion 14 new large-scale projects. But it’s too soon to know how many of those, if any, will result in power plants or whether the country will be able to reach the government’s target of roughly tripling Japan’s geothermal generating capacity by 2030.

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