Japan looks to the sun after nuclear crisis

WILLIAM MACE
Last updated 05:00 28/12/2011
LIGHT YEARS AHEAD: Japan's turn away from increasing nuclear power means the way is being cleared for more use of solar power and the same could happen in New Zealand.
Reuters
LIGHT YEARS AHEAD: Japan's turn away from increasing nuclear power means the way is being cleared for more use of solar power and the same could happen in New Zealand.

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For a nation first ruined and then reinvigorated by 67 years of atomic-age technological development, the new political and commercial will for Japan to rid its countryside of nuclear reactors has been relatively swift.

Just last year the Japanese were envisioning a nuclear future: the nation's energy strategy called for a doubling of nuclear power's contribution to the country's grid; growing from 30 per cent to about half of the country's electricity mix by 2030.

Aimed at increasing self-sustainability and reducing the economy's exposure to high-cost spending on foreign fuels, the plan also called for a reduction in fossil fuel dependence from 60 per cent of electricity generation to 26 per cent.

The remaining 21 per cent was to be generated from renewable energy sources, including large hydro-power facilities.

But on March 11 the 9.0 Richter-scale earthquake – and resulting tsunami – that rocked the island of Honshu also led to reactor failures, radioactive leaks and spectacular explosions at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.

The energy landscape also shifted.

Within two months Prime Minister Naoto Kan had halted the re-opening of nuclear plants that were undergoing maintenance, closed another plant that was quake-vulnerable and then publicly back-tracked on the plan to boost Japan's nuclear output, saying it should instead be part of a wider portfolio of fossil-fuelled and renewable energy sources.

Aside from forcing 80,000 people from their homes and sparking fears about the safety of food and water supplies, the Fukushima disaster swayed some 70 per cent of people polled in July to call for the phasing out of nuclear plants, a Reuters report said.

Kan himself has since been forced out of office but Cabinet economic minister Yukio Edano recently restated the political desire to reduce dependence on nuclear energy, although he said no decision had been made on whether the proportion of nuclear generation would be reduced to zero.

The irony of replacing fossil-fuelled generation with what many New Zealanders consider as an even dirtier method may have been lost on the Japanese authorities before the quake, but nobody is laughing now that both appear even more unsustainable long term.

What's more, Japan's CO2 emissions actually climbed 4.4 per cent in the year to March to 1.122 billion tonnes – the first increase in three years – effectively endangering its ability to meet Kyoto Protocol targets by March 2013.

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But while Japanese politicians wrangle with quake clean-up, nuclear safety concerns and climbing greenhouse emissions, Japanese technology executives are climbing aboard the "green energy" wagon.

One of the world's biggest electronics manufacturers, Osaka-based Panasonic Corporation, recently announced a goal of becoming the "number one green innovation company in the electronics industry" in time for its centenary in 2018.

The company is aiming to reach a peak in its net carbon dioxide emissions by the end of the 2019 financial year, including the 80 per cent of emissions that emerge from use of its products: everything from air-conditioners, washing machines and heat-pumps to flat-screen televisions, stereos, digital cameras and breadmakers.

Panasonic's Green Plan estimates it will "contribute to the reduction" of carbon dioxide emissions to the tune of 120 million tonnes by 2018.

The figure is based on the amount of CO2 that will have been prevented from being emitted since 2005, when the plan was instigated.

The targets balance a socially and environmentally responsible ethic with the prospect of a 3 trillion yen (NZ$52.3 billion) market in renewable energy generation systems for the home and office by 2018.

Panasonic's effort is centred around its new Energy Systems division, which was bolstered by the buy-out of Sanyo Electric Company completed in April this year.

Sanyo's leadership in producing long-lasting lithium-ion batteries, advanced energy management computers and high efficiency photo-voltaic (PV) solar panels gives the group elbow-room in a growing market and an ability to continue marketing its new range of Eco Navi energy efficient appliances.

Take solar PV panels as an example: as a condition of his resignation Prime Minister Kan pushed through a Feed-In Tariff [FIT] policy that should provide impetus for increased residential and commercial installation of clean solar energy generators.

Essentially, the FIT taxpayer subsidy guarantees an above-market price will be paid by electricity retailers to anyone supplying solar energy to the national grid, such as a householder whose PV panels produce more electricity than they can consume.

The income offsets the initial cost of purchasing and installing a PV system and a long-term contract guarantees the cashflow won't be cut off before the investment is realised.

In New Zealand, PV retailer and installer Powersmart Solar's Mike Bassett-Smith quotes around $14,000 for a 3 kilowatt solar system which would provide more than half the average household's yearly electricity consumption.

The chairman of the Sustainable Electricity Association of New Zealand, Brendan Winitana, says the per-kilowatt price for panels ranges between $4600 and $3500, while the pay-back period under a one-to-one feed-in rate contract with Meridian Energy can be anywhere between three to seven years.

The cost and return equation varies depending on a wide range of factors, but Meridian's ground-breaking market-priced payment for solar-generated electricity that is fed back into the grid makes the initial solar investment increasingly attractive.

Meridian purchases any excess solar energy householders produce at the same rate as it would cost any consumer to buy it from a retailer.

"We commend Meridian for that," says Bassett-Smith, but he wants some kind of central legislation to make such deals much more common.

"Electricity is really a one-way street – the whole thing is designed to go from the central generation plant to your home and not the other way.

"But now that we have distributed electricity technology – whether it's solar or small wind [turbines] or biomass – that can connect and work at a home, they need some sort of reform.

"We often say it's a one way street and we need [the Government] to paint a line down the middle because we have to be able to travel down the other side."

So we don't really need the solar revolution to be subsidised as it is in Japan and other European states, according to both Winitana and Bassett-Smith.

The Government doesn't need to set an above-market price, it just needs to set a floor price alongside the retail price, like Meridian, and provide some guarantee around the length of time small-scale generators can expect to receive returns.

That's because the cost of PV panels is coming down on a weekly basis thanks to technological developments being made by the likes of Panasonic, Sharp, Siemens and others, and cheap manufacturing processes are ramping up in China.

Winitana believes the "grid parity" point where rising power prices have met with declining PV technology costs has already been reached, and therefore feed-in tariff, above-market subsidies, which create a false economy to support the PV panel producers' costs, are no longer needed.

But both he and Bassett-Smith believe there are benefits to the distribution network from small-scale generators that might, in some way, be credited back to them.

"If you're generating at `point of use' then there are no distribution or transmission costs," says Winitana, who lobbies for the PV industry on behalf of manufacturers and the supply chain of the technology including designers, integrators, installers, and power retailers and lines companies.

"So if the retail rate is 23c per kilowatt hour, and transmission charges are generally 35 to 40 per cent of that, doesn't logic say you should take that percentage off, leaving that rate at up around 16 or 17c?"

Winitana said the Ministry of Economic Development looked on the idea of one-to-one feed-in tariffs favourably, but progress on that part of the wider Electricity Review has slowed recently.

Could New Zealanders have been lulled into complacency because of our existing high percentage (70 per cent) of renewable energy generation and perception as a clean, green economy?

Dry years have the potential to cripple electricity supply to our major cities, the extension of the nationwide transmission network is pushing up retail prices, and natural disasters are a more real threat than ever.

One thing New Zealanders don't usually take for granted is the sun. It could be about to play an even greater role in our lives, as well as that of the Japanese, than it ever has before.

William Mace travelled to Japan as a guest of Panasonic Corporation.

- Wellington

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