Feature Report: Japan and Energy

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Japan's Search for Energy Balance

Japan, a densely populated and highly industrialized country with a limited inhabitable area and virtually no fossil fuels, has been looking into new energy sources and technological innovations for more than 50 years. This proactive approach has enabled it to become one of the world's leaders in research on renewable energies and hydrogen. The March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident led to the shutdown of a powerful and very old network of nuclear plants, reopening the debate about the country's energy transition.

Japan and energy
In spite of the Fukushima accident, Japan remains reliant on nuclear energy while developing renewables to balance its energy mix. ©SHUTTERSTOCK

Atypical Geographic Conditions

The Land of the Rising Sun is an archipelago made up of nearly 7,000 islands and islets. The four largest – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku – account for 97% of Japan's total surface area. With its 127 million inhabitants concentrated along the narrow coastal plains, the country ranks tenth worldwide in terms of population despite its declining demographics. Greater Tokyo is the world's most populated metropolitan area, with more than 30 million residents.

Japan is located in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where several tectonic plates meet. The consequences of this geological configuration are a virtual absence of fossil fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... resources and frequent seismic activity, some of which can be very destructive, putting lives at risk and disrupting powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... grids and industrial facilities.

The country has the world's third-highest gross domestic product (GDP), with a strong industrial sector, particularly in high-tech segments such as automobiles and electronics. Primary energyAll energy sources that have not undergone any conversion process and remain in their natural state.. consumption per inhabitant is comparable to that of Europe. In addition, due to its large population, Japan is a major consumer and importer of energy, sourcing 94% of its primary energy from abroad in 2014. It is the world's third-largest producer of electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... , behind China and the United States. Power consumption per inhabitant exceeds 7,800 kilowatt-hours, versus around 7,000 kilowatt-hours in Germany and in France, and 13,000 kilowatt-hours in the United States1.

24%: The planned contribution of renewables to electricity production in Japan in 2030 (versus 13% at the time of the Fukushima accident).

Two Focuses: Nuclear and Renewables

Japan's energy challenges pushed it to invest at a very early stage in researching new energy sources. The country began building its nuclear power plants at the very start of the 1970s. As early as the first oil crisis in 1973, Japan created research programs to study the use of hydrogenThe simplest and lightest atom, the most abundant element in the universe. (see Close-Up: "A Comprehensive Approach to Hydrogen Applications") and solar energy. By 1994, the photovoltaic sector had reached the stage of large-scale deployment.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident (see sidebar) renewed doubts about Japan's energy balanceThe energy balance of an operation or process is the ratio between the energy available at the end of the operation and... . Prior to the disaster, electricity was produced in roughly equal shares from natural gas (30%), nuclear (27%) and coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... (25%). After the shutdown of almost the entire nuclear sector, the proportion of gas rose to 42% and that of coal to 30%. Japan even had to increase the share of electricity produced using fuel oil from 7% to 14%.

This situation has had significant impacts, including:

A Strategic Energy Plan has set new targets, with nuclear and renewables forecast to make up a respective 20% and 24% of the power generation mix. However, the debate is not yet over between partisans of restarting the nuclear plants (a lobby known as the "nuclear village" in Japan) and those who want to move much further toward a society based on renewables and hydrogen2.

The Limits of Renewables

Increasing the contribution of renewable to electricity production from 13% to 24% between 2013 and 2030 represents another challenge, which will require a slight 10% rise in hydro and surges of 200% in the use of biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... , 300% in geothermalDescribes the technology used to tap subsurface heat to produce energy... and wind power, and a huge 600% in solar photovoltaics (PV)3.

Japan's geography is not well suited to wind farms, so the sector is focusing on innovations in offshoreRefers to sea-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "offshore license" or "offshore drilling". floating wind farms. The first such installation, with a capacity of 2 megawatts, was set up off the coast of Fukushima in November 2013. Two others, with a capacity of 7 megawatts each, have followed.

Japan has long been the world's leader in photovoltaic solar power, even ahead of Germany. In 1994, the authorities implemented a program to help spur growth in the sector by encouraging the installation of rooftop PV systems.

The Residential PV System Dissemination Program led to the installation of 70,000 rooftop solar systems in 2000. Following the Fukushima accident in 2012, new subsidy programs based on highly attractive purchase prices gave fresh impetus to both installations in the residential market and high-capacity plants. Thanks to these new incentives, 900,000 additional households have begun using this type of energy out of a total of 27 million single-family homes in Japan. In addition, the country's shortage of space has led to original innovations, including the construction of floating solar power plants, such as the 1.7 megawatt project on Lake Nishihira.

Another challenge has involved integrating renewably sourced electricity into power grids. Since the end of the 19th century, the power system has operated on two different frequencies (50 hertz in the north and 60 hertz in the south) and, as a result, two voltages (110 volts and 220 volts). To complicate matters, ten power companies manage the grids.

In 2014, Japan imported 94% of its primary energy. Japan has an official target of raising nuclear back to 20% of its power generation mix by 2030.

Emissions Reduction Targets

The two focuses that Japan is considering – nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water... and renewables – point to progress when it comes to greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions targets. In 2010, Japan refused to join the Kyoto ProtocolInternational agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change... for a second commitment period on the grounds that the United States and China were not taking part. The country’s emissions reduction curve was significantly disrupted by the post­Fukushima nuclear shutdown and the increased use of fossil fuels. When the Paris AgreementOil contract under which the oil that is produced is shared between the state and the oil company... was adopted in December 2015, Japan made a formal commitment to reduce its emissions by 26% by 2030 compared with the record high in 2013 (or by 18% compared with the 1990 benchmark year used by Europe).


How Japan Dealt with the Fukushima Crisis ?
Brought on by an earthquake and a subsequent tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident caused the authorities to shut down Japan's 54 nuclear reactors, some of which were under maintenance at the time. 

To make up for the violent drop in power generation, Japan increased the use of its other thermal power plants and adopted measures lasting several months to decrease energy use. 

Some of these measures were restrictive (fewer trains, scheduled power outages, mandatory restrictions for industrial companies, etc.), while others called on the goodwill of citizens and businesses (air conditioning settings raised by 2°C, less refrigeration of drink machines, escalators turned off, etc.). Automotive plants adjusted their hours to allow for more work to be done over the weekend and employees were asked to work earlier in the mornings and take more vacation time over the summer. There were also some unexpected, less positive effects, such as a surge in fan sales.

In just a few months, the country adapted to the new situation, but at the price of increased hydrocarbon imports. 

At the end of 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power spurred a new drive to restart nuclear plants. While 12 of the 54 initial reactors, including the Fukushima reactors, have been permanently shut down, a restart program for the remaining 42 has begun, together with the implementation of stricter safety measures. 

Five reactors were restarted in the summer of 2017. Nevertheless, the future of nuclear power remains uncertain due to the numerous legal actions undertaken by local resident organizations and citizens' groups, and to the public's undeniable loss of trust in energy operators and, more broadly, the authorities.




(1) International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Bank

(2) Paris Academy of Geopolitics (in French only)

(3) Study conducted by the Embassy of France in Japan (in French only)