Fukushima could turn Japanese on to wind

JAPAN: The worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl may have begun a shift in Japan from reliance on nuclear power towards wind and other green energy sources. That, at least, is implied by unusually pro-renewables comments by a senior government official and other established figures after the March 11 earthquake-induced catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in north-east Japan.

"The moral of the disaster is that if you rely on large-scale and centralised energy such as nuclear power, you will run into an energy crisis," says Nobutaka Tsutsui, senior vice-minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. "Sustainable energy, beginning with wind power, focuses on small-scale and distributed facilities, and is strong in the face of disasters."

Until now, criticism of nuclear power has been taboo in top Japanese policy circles, while support for renewables has typically been vague at best. Japan has idly watched neighbouring China's wind sector soar while its own wind businesses failed to gain traction. But the mood across Japan has shifted subtly after wind farms continued to function in the wake of the magnitude-nine earthquake.

Reactors cancelled

Japan has long met about a third of its energy needs with nuclear power from 55 reactors, and had planned to boost this figure to around 40%. But top power utility Tokyo Electric Power Company has now cancelled plans to build two new reactors. Following the disaster, the Japanese population is seen as unlikely to condone any new reactors for the nation's ten utility firms.

Experts say that to replace nuclear power with green energy sources, Japan must require utilities to buy this electricity at mandated prices, or feed-in tariffs (FITs). They may soon get their wish: the government aims to implement FITs during the current parliamentary session, ending 22 June. "I see the introduction of feed-in tariffs as the most important role for the government to play right now," says Tsutsui.

Stronger policy could jolt Japan into lightning-fast adoption of green technologies, as it did for the post-war automotive and electronics industries.

"Japan might become the prime learning example of how fast things scale up in a crunch," says Andrew DeWit, a professor at the School of Policy Studies at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

The expected FIT for wind will be JPY20/kWh ($0.24/kWh) for new wind installations. Existing facilities will be excluded. Some are scraping by on only JPY7/kWh, according to Masaru Kaneko, professor of economics at Keio University in Tokyo.

Without a thorough probe into the nuclear accident, there will be no level playing field for renewables, adds Kaneko. "It is necessary to set up an accident investigation committee, pursue the responsibility of the utilities, and conduct a power review," he says. "Without that there is no potential for wind or solar power."

Kaneko and others say Japanese big business has long colluded with government to favour nuclear energy at the expense of renewables. And he says conservative elements are already working to erect obstacles to a probe. "What they are planning," he continues, "is to delay the process into the peak summer consumption period when power cutbacks are scheduled so they can say, 'Look, we need nuclear power'."

Should that happen, Japan may never fully reflect on its energy policy, lowering the prospects for renewables including wind, he says.

Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, in Tokyo, compares recent events to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that placed Japan on the road to modernisation, and to the 1945 end of World War II launching it towards decades-long economic glory.

"For Japan, March 11 amounts to the third resetting of the nation," says Iida. "We cannot go back to the previous regime, and must not go back."

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