Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture – hit hard by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster – could soon become a beacon for the country’s clean energy future with a new $2.75 billion project that will transform the area into a hub for wind and solar energy. This development comes as Japan is increasingly prioritizing renewables, facing a declining nuclear industry which once accounted for nearly a third of the nation’s electricity.
In fact, the Fukushima Prefecture’s goals now include sourcing 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, two-thirds by 2030, and 100% by 2040, compared to 28% in 2017. Its planned addition of renewables, which will consist of 11 new solar plants and 10 new wind farms on land contaminated by radiation, will propel the prefecture toward its energy targets and add a combined generating capacity of 600 megawatts by 2024. The new wind and solar will also be complemented by new grid infrastructure to connect generation to existing transmission.
Japan’s current electricity system
After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Japan temporarily shut down all of its nuclear reactors. While some nuclear is slowly coming back online, each plant reopening requires approval by the central and relevant local governments. To date, only 9 reactors have restarted, 6 have been approved for installment license amendments, and 24 are currently being decommissioned. That leaves 21 reactors whose fates are as yet unclear. Since 2011 when all nuclear plants temporarily went offline, Japan has largely turned to coal and natural gas to fill the gap left by nuclear, and the country’s reliance on coal makes it the third-largest coal importer, behind only India and China. As a result, Japan faces energy security challenges, is paying dearly in terms of direct spending on imports as well as in terms of public health, and will likely fall short of the decarbonization necessary to hit international climate targets.
That’s not to say Japan hasn’t been making progress on renewables – solar installations have undergone rapid growth, making the country a promising solar market. This progress is in part thanks to the introduction of a feed-in tariff scheme in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which requires utilities to purchase electricity generated by renewables at prices set by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.
The results are impressive: Solar’s share of power generation jumped from less than 1% in 2010 to nearly 7% in 2018. However, the tariff, along with higher prices for fossil fuel imports, has also contributed to higher electricity prices for customers, prompting the government to reconsider this approach. Moving forward, Japan may consider exploring new policy approaches that continue promoting solar and wind resources while minimizing costs.
How do renewables fit into Japan’s energy future?
In its most recent Strategic Energy Plan, Japan acknowledged the vulnerability of its overwhelming dependence on energy imports and pointed to a goal of transforming renewable energy into “the major power source.” It’s also signaled a goal of net zero emissions “at the earliest possible time in the second half of the century.”
But in order to achieve these goals, Japan could be more aggressive in accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels and setting concrete nearer-term targets as it continues to consider whether or not to re-start the 21 nuclear power plants whose future is uncertain. Its net zero emissions goal necessarily implies an ambitious electrification plan – meaning establishing a clean electricity system should be a top priority. However, the government’s view of an “ideal energy supply and demand structure” for 2030 includes only modest increases in renewable energy from 2017 levels while still allocating more than half the power mix to coal, gas, and oil.
Concerns about grid stability and electricity prices have contributed to Japan’s overly conservative approach to renewables. But an analysis from Agora Energiewende and Japan’s Renewable Energy Institute shows its power system could easily accommodate 33% renewables by 2030, rather than the 22%-24% currently envisioned. And in a more ambitious scenario, Japan could maintain grid stability with 40% renewables in 2030, while curtailing only 4% of annual renewable generation. To foster this level of growth, Japanese policymakers can implement policy and operational improvements, such as market rules that allow clean energy to assume greater responsibilities within the power system.
The benefits of a robust clean energy foundation in Japan are many, and could go beyond the immediate power sector. A decarbonized grid will create a stronger case for transportation electrification, given the dependence on imported liquid fuels. This, in turn, could lend urgency to more investment in electric and hydrogen vehicles from Japan’s auto industry, which would also prove valuable for long-haul trucking globally.
Securing a clean energy foundation
The Fukushima Prefecture’s announcement that it will transform tainted farmland into a wind and solar hotspot is a promising step toward a renewable future for Japan. The country as a whole needs more of this kind of ambitious investment – but some fear limited real estate and falling bid prices for solar development could constrain renewables deployment. However, Japan also has an undeveloped resource offshore – the government has identified 11 areas suitable for offshore wind development.
In the meantime, Fukushima is wise to tap the potential of contaminated land that now lies fallow, echoing similar efforts in Chernobyl, where solar panels now adorn uninhabitable acres, and the U.S., where landfills and brownfields are being converted into solar brightfields. In this way, the prefecture might just become fertile ground for renewables growth and a bright spot in Japan’s clean energy transition.