Coal and Other Fossil Fuels Rise in Japan as Nuclear Power Plants Remain Offline

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The Works

Coal and Other Fossil Fuels Rise in Japan as Nuclear Power Plants Remain Offline

Credit: Greenpeace.

In 2010, Japan had big plans to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation. Under the Basic Energy Plan, the world’s third-largest economy (second until 2010, when it was surpassed by China) intended to reduce coal and liquid natural gas’ share of total electricity production by the year 2030 from nearly 60 percent to just 10 percent, by boosting renewables’ share to 20 percent and nearly doubling nuclear’s share to half.

But less than a year after the report was issued, the Tōhoku 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit the island nation, killing more than 15,000 people and provoking a crisis at the Fukushima I Nuclear Plant. Though there have been no immediate, direct deaths as a result of the meltdown and radiation leak, the accident shook the Japanese public’s confidence in nuclear power. At one point in 2011, 38 of Japan’s 54 nuclear plants were offline; as of September 15 of this year, Japan has no active nuclear reactors, with resumption of any of these plants not planned until next year at the earliest.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems committed to restarting some of Japan’s nuclear power plans, and the country is unlikely — at least for now — to go the way of Germany, which plans to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022, as had been the goal of the previous government in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

But reliance on nuclear power in Japan is definitely on the decline, and new sources of energy are needed to fill the gap. Renewables like wind and solar power would be the ideal replacement, but with energy prices soaring — the average cost of electricity generation per kilowatt hour rose from 8.6 yen in 2010 to 13.5 yen in 2012 — the government and energy companies are turning to a cheaper source of power: coal.

Reuters reported last night that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owned the nuclear reactors at Fukushima, is planning to build a new coal-fired power plant in the province. The newswire reports:

Tokyo Electric Power Co will tie up with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Corp and Mitsubishi Electric to build integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) stations.

Mitsubishi group companies will have a majority stake in the new plants while cash-strapped Tepco will be in charge of running the facilities, which they plan to put online around 2020, the source said.

Tepco has been under pressure to introduce energy-efficient facilities as all of its nuclear power plants have been closed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, with no immediate prospects of restarting any nuclear plants given public distrust.

Mitsubishi Heavy also aims to be a leading player in the new IGCC technology, which will increase power output by 20 percent from conventional coal power plants, using the same amount of fuel.

In the short-run, another 14 new gas- and coal-fired power plants are set to start up by the end of 2014.

Meanwhile, power generation at existing fossil fuel power plants is up considerably since the country’s nuclear share dropped to zero:

Regional power utilities used a record amount of LNG and coal for October as they turned to fossil fuels to offset lost output from idled nuclear reactors.

The utilities consumed 4.62 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas, the highest for October and up 8 percent from last year, according to data released Friday from the Federation of Electric Power Cos.

Coal use rose 26 percent to 4.78 million tons, which was also a record for the month, according to the industry group, which started compiling data on the 10 companies in 1972.

Given that replacing coal-fired plants with nuclear reactors leads to “significant” environmental gains, replacing nuclear power with coal can be expected to have the opposite effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Writing about the future of Japanese power in a post-Fukushima environment, Dr. Vlado Vivoda, a research fellow at Griffith University in Australia, argues that putting Japan’s nuclear power plants back online could be the least-bad solution to the country’s energy woes:

The evidence in this paper indicates that the most feasible option for Japan to remain economically competitive is that, if public opposition can be overcome, as many nuclear reactors are restarted as soon as possible. In the short-to-medium term, energy expansion should come from more imported oil, coal and LNG, with gradual reduction in the share of nuclear power in Japan’s energy mix. The commitment to emissions-intensive fossil fuels will result in a difficult-to-accept increase in greenhouse gas emissions that can be minimized by restarting nuclear reactors.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

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