In the short run, there is no choice but to switch to thermal power generation using natural gas. The government should promptly initiate its work to do so because it normally takes about a decade to complete a thermal power station, considering the time required to select and procure a site for the facility.
Circumstances surrounding natural gas have drastically changed. The amount of natural gas produced has sharply increased since the technology of extracting gas from shale was established in the United States. Shale gas fields are being developed in China and many other countries in the world. The International Energy Agency estimates that the amount of gas consumed on a global scale will increase by 50 percent by 2030. The natural gas age has arrived.
Germany, which has decided to pursue a society without nuclear power, intends to make up for a shortage of electric power with that generated by thermal power stations. However, the price of natural gas will certainly rise because its demand is expected to sharply expand. Measures should be taken on a global scale to not only guarantee contracts to purchase gas but also to expand interest in gas field exploitation.
Of thermal power plants using fossil fuels, those powered by coal emit the largest amount of carbon dioxide, a type of greenhouse gas. However, coal can be stably procured from all over the world, and its price is relatively low. Electric power generated by such plants accounts for approximately 25 percent of electricity consumed in Japan. To ensure a stable supply of electricity, Japan will need to maintain its coal-powered thermal electric power plants. Germany relies on coal-powered electric power plants for 41 percent of electricity consumed domestically, far above the ratio in Japan.
In short, there is no choice but to make up for a shortage of electric power as a result of decreasing nuclear power plants with power generated by thermal power stations until the ratio of power generated by renewable energy sources rises significantly.
However, there are problems involving such efforts including a rise in the costs of generating electric power and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
According to an estimate made by the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, if all domestic nuclear power plants are shut down, the cost of Japan’s imports of fuel will increase by 3.473 trillion yen next fiscal year, increasing the monthly average electricity charge by 1,049 yen per household and by 36 percent for businesses.
Business leaders have expressed grave concern that if a shortage of electric power becomes chronic and electric power rate rises as a result, it will force businesses to shift their factories abroad, speeding up the hollowing out of Japan’s industry. Some view the shortage of electric power as a unique opportunity to transform Japan’s economy, which consumes a massive amount of electric power, into one that relies less on energy. However, adverse changes in the economy, such as a sharp rise in the unemployment rate, must be avoided by all means.
The hollowing out of domestic industry is very complex and it cannot be attributed solely to a rise in energy expenses. Behind the problem are also various factors such as the sharp appreciation of the yen, inadequate infrastructure for manufacturing, a shortage of human resources that have received advanced education, high corporate tax rates and a lack of leadership ability on the part of the government, which cannot decide whether Japan should participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. The government needs to clarify its stance toward supporting businesses and implement specific measures to that end.
If Japan’s reliance on nuclear power plants declines, it will be difficult for the government to achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990s levels. Therefore, it should review its goal.
After the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emission expires, a new system should be created under which Japan’s exports of devices that help reduce greenhouse emissions to developing countries can be recognized as reductions in Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions. It should not use taxpayers’ money to buy surplus emission credits from other countries in a desperate bid to achieve its numerical target.
In the medium- and long term, Japan should develop and use more renewable energy. Germany’s policy of seeking to eliminate nuclear power stations is coupled with its strategy of seeking to be a leader in the field of renewable energy. The level of Japan’s environmental protection technology is equal to that of Germany’s. Japan has the potential to become a leader in an environment-friendly energy revolution.
The Environment Ministry estimates by 2030, approximately 330 billion kilowatts per hour can be generated in Japan solely with renewable energy if its land is fully utilized. The figure is about 30 percent of electric power currently generated throughout Japan and equal to the amount of power currently generated by all nuclear power plants across the country. Theoretically, all atomic energy used for power generation in Japan can be changed to renewable energy. It is not easy to achieve this but the government should try by setting this as a target.
Among various electric power generation methods using renewable energy sources, Japan has placed priority on solar power generation. At one point, Japan was the No. 1 country in the world in terms of the amount of power generated by solar energy panels. Various experiments are being conducted, such as storing electric power generated by solar panels in batteries for electric vehicles. The problem involving solar power generation is its high costs. However, as the method becomes widespread, the costs will certainly decrease.
Wind power generation is the most widespread in the world because its costs are relatively low. Japan is ranked only 12th in the world in the volume of power generated by wind turbines. There are various challenges that must be overcome, such as their noise. However, there are many such generators in the Tohoku and other regions, and their potential is particularly high. Floating wind power generators are fitted for Japan, which is surrounded by little sea with shoals. Moreover, the government should promote the introduction of geothermal energy generation, which could be stable sources of electric power, and small- and medium-scale hydraulic power generation for local consumption.
One of the disadvantages of natural energy sources is that their ability to generate electric power depends on the amount of sunshine and wind and is therefore unstable. This is the main reason why electric power companies have been reluctant to connect such power generators to their power grids. To overcome this problem, power suppliers should expand their power interchange capacity between themselves and install special batteries to stabilize electric power in their respective grids. In the long run, power suppliers’ regional monopoly needs to be reviewed.
Above all, reductions in energy consumption are most important. The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan estimates that by replacing all incandescent bulbs in Japan with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, electric power equal to that generated by four nuclear reactors can be saved. This is why it is said that "saving energy is creating energy."
Future generations will feel the limited nature of energy more than us. Japan must reform itself into a country that can efficiently function with smaller amounts of energy. The system to supply energy needs to be restructured into one based on local production for local consumption. Renewable energy is most suitable for such an energy-supply system. Prompt action is called for to ensure energy safety and security for future generations.