The future of power in Japan: Connecting life-saving disaster resilience with a low-carbon energy system

Photo showing destroyed village - lots of debris, cables and collapsed houses
Ohama Miyato , Japan, in May, 2011, two and half months after the earthquake and tsunami (c) ArtwayPics

Hamish Beath, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, undertook a research placement at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. In this blog, he considers the future of Japan’s power sector, and why disaster resilience and low-carbon energy go hand in hand.

At 2.46pm, on 11 March 2011, the biggest earthquake ever to hit Japan struck 80 miles off the north-eastern coast. The resulting tsunami left thousands dead and triggered the meltdown of an aging nuclear power plant that had become submerged by sea water. Power was cut to swathes of the Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi regions – not to be restored in some places until five months later. Tragically, some who survived the immediate impact of the earthquake and tsunami lost their lives because hospitals were without power and could not accept patients. Others froze to death in the bitter cold whilst waiting to be rescued.

In response to the disaster – referred to locally as ‘3/11’ – Japan’s entire fleet of nuclear power stations were taken offline. Only two plants, out of a total of 17 that have applied to restart, have generated power since. The fear of another accident, especially amongst communities living close to facilities, has meant that nuclear power has lost its social license to operate. Since that time, the shortfall in energy supply has largely been filled by imported Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), a fossil fuel, which has caused a sharp increase in carbon dioxide emissions and a marked reduction in Japan’s energy independence.

Despite public opposition, the Japanese government are working to restart further nuclear power plants. In 2014, the Japanese Cabinet approved the first long-term energy plan since 3/11, and nuclear power was a key component. This is in part due to a desire for greater independence from imported gas. In addition, large amounts of debt are tied up in inactive plants. If they remain inactive this debt will have to be written-off, posing a potential risk to the Japanese financial sector.

However, catalysed by the disaster, and to an extent by Japan’s commitment within Paris Climate Accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2013 levels by 2030, there have been some promising developments towards creating a more disaster-resilient as well as low-carbon power sector.

Graph showing how the power sector varies in 2010 and 2016.
Adapted from Business Monitor International, Japan power report 2010 & Japan Power report 2017

Promising steps in the right direction

One such initiative has been for some localities to set-up their own local electricity mini-grids powered by renewable energy, which decreases their dependence on the national grid. Generating power locally from renewable technologies such as wind and solar means that at-risk communities can reduce their vulnerability to major disasters whilst also decarbonising.

Higashimatsushima, a city of 40,000 on the Miyagi prefecture coastline, was badly hit by the 3/11 tsunami. Approximately 65% of the city area was flooded, more than any other city in Japan, and over a thousand people were killed, with many more missing and never accounted for. Since the disaster, Higashimatsushima has become the poster-child for smart, resilient communities in Japan. A mini-grid of solar power with electricity storage in the form of batteries has been set up within the city. The mini-grid connects almost 100 homes, four medical facilities and a community building – demonstrating how things can be done differently. The mini-grid generates half of the power needed and imports the rest from the national grid. In the event that the national grid fails, the mini-grid could provide full power for at least three days using the stored electricity. Following this, the mini-grid could continue to supply essential power to the healthcare and community facilities.

Professor Kashiwagi of the Advanced Energy Systems group at Tokyo Institute of Technology sees such systems as an integral part of Japan’s future. He argues that the key to creating a modern, resilient and low-carbon power sector is combining renewable generation within communities such as Higashimatsushima, with more efficient large power stations on the national grid.

Localised renewable energy coupled with storage not only makes communities more disaster resilient, but also reduces the greenhouse gas emissions of the power sector. People in Japan care about disaster risk, especially since the 2011 earthquake. “In a country where climate change barely registers with the electorate and is very low on the political agenda, adapting communities for disaster is a golden opportunity to create a more climate-friendly power sector,” says Professor Andrew Dewitt of Rikkyo University, Tokyo. 

But it’s not that straightforward…

There is pessimism that Japan will meet its emission targets for 2030, which are not particularly ambitious, and there are no targets in place for 2050.  “For the third largest economy in the world, it’s a very poor effort” argues Romaine Zissler of Japan’s Renewable Energy Institute.  “Getting around the table and making everyone agree… is very hard”.

Mihama Nuclear Power Plant and Nyu Bridge seen from Mount Saiho in Fukui prefecture, Japan.
Mihama Nuclear Power Plant and Nyu Bridge, Japan. (c) Alpsdake

Despite promising developments in communities such as Higashimatsushima, many obstacles still exist to developing similar local initiatives.  “Sadly, these are only pilot projects”, says Masashi Oki of Sojitzu, a large Japanese trading company with significant interest in developing renewable energy and the accompanying smart-grid technology. The government poured large amounts of one-off cash into making a few pilots projects happen, without implementing a strategy to encourage such developments in at-risk communities across the country.

The power sector in Japan is comprised of 10 large regional utility companies that provide all services for each region, from generation to customer billing. New legislation introduced in 2016 means that independent power producers are now legally permitted to sell electricity to the grid, making projects like Higashimasutshima possible. Despite this, the regional power companies still hold enormous sway and are keen to maintain their dominance. Due to the fact that they own and maintain the power lines, they are able to use tactics to prevent new entrants, such as denying the ability for new power producers to connect to the grid.

3/11 has provided Japan with both challenges and opportunities. The impetus for change to create disaster-resilient communities is there, which provides much needed leverage to boost the growth of renewables and energy storage. Let’s hope, in turn, that it accelerates the move to a low-carbon, climate-friendly power sector.

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