Japanese Solar Poised for Growth But Government’s Long-Term Decarbonization Strategy Falls Short of Expectations

Japan’s long-term decarbonization strategy falls short on several counts, including setting solar and renewable energy goals and phasing out use of fossil fuels, according to some energy and environmental organizations.

Released publicly on June 11 in advance of Japan hosting a meeting of G-20 energy ministers in mid-June in the city of Karuizawa on the topic “Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth” and the annual G-20 Summit in Osaka in late June, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a plan that calls for Japan to reduce its net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero “as early as possible in the second half of this century.” “Action against climate change is not a cost to the economy but a growth strategy toward the future,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated. “We will create a virtuous cycle and lead the paradigm shift of the world’s climate policy.”

The government’s long-term decarbonization strategy envisions solar, wind and other distributed, renewable energy resources playing the central role in Japan’s clean energy transition, but the plan isn’t ambitious, or far-reaching, enough, some say. Coal-fired power plants will continue operating and Japan will reboot nuclear power generation, for instance, according to the plan.

Carbon Tax Rate Comparison by Country (1990-2030)
Figure 3-2 Carbon Tax Rate Comparison
Source: Ministry of the Environment, Subcommittee on Utilization of Carbon Pricing (Fourth Meeting),
Document 2 (November 2018)
Chart: Proposal for Energy Strategy Toward a Decarbonized Society—Achieving a Carbon-Neutral Japan by 2050 (by Renewable Energy Institute, Japan)

I feel a big gap between Japan and the [rest of the] world, which is moving towards a decarbonized society, planning to phase out coal-fired power by 2030 and putting energy efficiency improvement and renewable energy at the core of their climate actions. The [government’s] LTS (Long-Term Strategy] does not mention strengthening measures by 2030, and it does not include ambitious targets for introducing renewable energy or reviewing overseas export support for coal-fired thermal power, which has been criticized internationally.

Yuri Okubo Solar Magazine Interviewee Avatar , a senior researcher with the Renewable Energy Institute’s (REI) Climate Change Group, told Solar Magazine.

An energy strategy proposal leading to a decarbonized Japan

Furthermore, Japan’s decarbonization strategy emphasizes “disruptive innovation,” which, Okubo explained, “is often used as an excuse to avoid the implementation of reduction measures by technologies that can be used immediately, and promotes the [use of] CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration), CCU (Carbon Capture and Utilization), and hydrogen society,” Okubo said in an interview.

Japan’s REI was founded by Softbank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son in 2011 in the wake of the tsunami and destruction of Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in order to establish “a society based on renewable energy” and “to research, develop and advocate policies, measure and financial/business models that are based on the dynamics of markets and society.”

Sustainable Power Mix in 2030 (Based on Japan REI’s Assumptions)
Figure 2-10 Sustainable Power Mix in 2030 (based on REI’s assumptions)
Source: Created by REI

REI on April 15 released the English version of its “Proposal for Energy Strategy Toward a Decarbonized Society—Achieving a Carbon-Neutral Japan by 2050.” “We have released our report now so that many Japanese stakeholders can have a clearer idea towards decarbonization and can use it as a reference when they submit their comments to the government proposal. Internationally, I hope it helps to understand where Japan as G20 presidency is situated now on climate and energy policy,” Okubo explained.

The Long-Term Strategy to be formulated by the government should be centered around energy efficiency and renewable energy expansion in order to enable significant reduction in domestic CO2 emissions through to 2030 and forging a path to zero net emissions by 2050.

—REI asserts

“From this point of view, Renewable Energy Institute’s proposal raises particularly important issues, together with accompanying data, around the topic of electricity generated from renewable energy, coal-fired power, CCS and hydrogen evaluation, industry, buildings, and traffic measures.”

Energy and Japan’s Long-Term Strategy for Decarbonization

According to its Long-Term Strategy, the Japanese government aims to have renewables account for 22–24% of national electricity generation by 2030, fossil fuels 56% and nuclear power 20–22% .

Japan previously committed to cut its GHG emissions by 26% by 2030 as compared to 2013 levels as per the UN Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015 .

2030/2050 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets by Country
Table 2-1 2030/2050 Targets by Country
Note: The European Commission (EU) in November 2018 announced its long-term vision aimed at climate neutrality by 2050.
Source: Created by REI based on the long-term strategies of each country (for Japan, Plan for Global Warming Countermeasures) and government agency websites.

The advisory panel report the Japanese government used as the basis for formulating its Long-Term Strategy was guided and informed by the intention of realizing Japan’s commitment as a party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting the rise in mean global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Its recommendations span the Japanese economy and society.

In addition to decarbonizing energy, the report outlined plans to decarbonize Japanese industry and manufacturing, including the steel industry’s goal to achieve “zero-carbon steel,” as well as a “well-to-wheel zero emissions” policy for the automotive sector. The panel also included phasing out the use of coal for power generation, but that recommendation was dropped during Cabinet negotiations after meeting stiff resistance from industry interests, according to a news report.

Air Pollution and Carbon Emissions from Power Plant

Japan will continue to rely on coal-fired and nuclear power generation even as it works to realize the government’s long-term decarbonization goals, however. Notable as an example of “disruptive innovation,” the Long-Term Strategy calls for maximizing use of hydrogen in order to reduce dependence on nuclear power to the lowest level possible, as well as developing advanced technology to improve power generation efficiency.

“Of the 54 reactors operating prior to the Fukushima nuclear accident, 21 have either already been decided to decommission or their decommission is being considered,” REI highlights in the report’s executive summary. “Although nine reactors have recommenced operation, eight have not even applied for the screening process required to restart. Given these circumstances, the target of 20–22% appears infeasible, and realizing a level even half this will be difficult.”

In addition, several major fossil-fuel projects have been canceled in Japan during the past few years. A total of 15 gigawatts (GW) of new coal-fired power generation is either under construction or under consideration, however, according to the Kiko Network’s Japan Coal Plant Tracker. Japan would effectively “lock in enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions long into the future” were those projects to come to fruition, Kiko Network President Mie Asaoka said.

The balance of government and political power regarding energy in Japan “is still inclined toward conventional energy sources, but it’s no longer unified. That change of balance will accelerate as the cost of renewables decline and the share of renewable energy increases,” Okubo said.

Solar Power Plant in Okinawa, Japan
A solar power plant in Okinawa, Japan | Image: Tim Franklin Photography / Flickr

Wholesale decarbonization in Japan

Japan’s stance on decarbonizing energy, its economy and society will not be seen as a serious one by the international community if Japan continues to rely on coal for one-quarter of its power generation capacity by 2030, emphasizes the realization of a hydrogen society and doesn’t raise its renewable energy targets, according to Okubo.

There are more and more Japanese companies, local government and others that would like to procure renewable energy. Such actors are starting to join international initiatives, such as SBT, RE100 and also domestic initiatives such as the Japan Climate Initiative, RE-Users and expressing their willingness to act. REI supports such initiatives as a secretariat.

REI’s proposed path to decarbonization in Japan spans its economy and society, zooming in on the issues associated with decarbonization of five major economic sectors. The development of a circular economy fueled by zero- or low-carbon energy in which waste and resource use are minimized plays a central role in all of them, as does the institution of carbon pricing.

  • Energy
  • Basic materials
  • Industry and Manufacturing
  • Transportation
  • Buildings

REI points out that Japan’s 2030 CO2 reduction targets for the industrial sector are only 6.5%, for example. “This low figure stands out compared to the targets for commercial (40%), residential (39%) and transport (28%). Although Japan’s industry achieved an approximate 35% improvement in energy efficiency from the 1970s through to the mid-1980s, improvements in manufacturing efficiency have stalled during the 30-year period from the latter 1980s. One pointed example of the room for improvement is that noted by the METI committee—that degradation of the insulation used with boiler pipes and other fittings is costing Japan’s manufacturing industry more than 10% in unneeded energy consumption—a significant loss,” according to the report.

Switching industrial processes from coal to natural gas power presents another significant opportunity for Japan to realize GHG emissions reductions. “Japan’s coal consumption has approximately doubled, from just under 13 million tons in 1995 to 25 million tons in 2016. GHG emissions could be reduced simply by switching the fuel used from coal to natural gas,” REI adds.

Coal Consumption by Japan’s Power Industry (1990-2015)
Figure 2-16 Coal Consumption by Japan’s Power Industry
Source: Created by REI based on METI, “Energy White Paper 2018” (June 2018)

Similarly, Japan’s buildings stand out as being energy inefficient in international comparisons. Just 8% of Japan’s residences meet the current energy conservation standards, REI highlights.

Furthermore, 35%—an extremely high rate—are uninsulated, with no insulative material utilized in the walls, floors, or ceilings. For non-residential buildings, more than 90% of large and mid-sized buildings meet the current energy standards when they are newly built. However, the standards in question are equivalent to those set 20 years ago, and target figures are considerably lenient.

Energy conservation standards and compliance mechanisms required to realize net-zero emissions buildings are needed across the building sector by 2050, REI says. “In their present state, most current buildings will not satisfy [the] energy efficiency level required in 2050. Renovations must be steadily implemented on an extremely large volume of building stock with poor energy performance by 2050. Mandate disclosure of building energy performance should also be implemented, including for existing buildings,” according to REI.

The outlook for solar energy and decarbonization

Turning to the outlook for solar energy in Japan, REI believes it’s likely that Japan will achieve the government’s target of 64 GW of installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity 10 years ahead of schedule, by 2020 as opposed to 2030. National solar PV capacity reached 55.5 GW in Japan as of year-end 2018. One of Japan’s largest solar energy consultants, RTS Corp. has forecast that Japan could install some 150 GW of solar PV capacity by 2030, REI notes.

Declining costs, as well as technological and manufacturing advances, are fueling growth in both solar and wind power generation. “The cost of renewable energy in Japan has trended downward in recent years, as far as 14.15–15.45 yen per kilowatt-hour (kWh) (USD0.13–0.14) in government solar power generation bidding conducted in December 2018,” REI highlights. The average minimum per-unit generation cost came in at 7.4 yen/kWh (~USD0.07), however, REI points out.

Looking ahead, the costs of solar power generation for systems exceeding 1-megawatt (MW) will fall to 6.4 yen/kWh in 2025 and 5.3 yen in 2030 , RTS forecasts. Bloomberg NEF has forecast that solar power will be cheaper than natural gas power in the early 2020s and cheaper than coal-fired power generation by the middle of the decade, REI points out. RTS also expects that onshore wind power generation will be cheaper than gas in the first half of the decade.

Asked if she and REI believe Japan will enact more ambitious solar and renewable energy goals and a long-term decarbonization strategy, Okubo said: “It has to and I believe it will. The question is the speed. What is lacking in Japan is the sense of urgency.”

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