For several weeks now, Japan has found itself virtually a nuclear free zone. Post-Fukushima, every single one of its nuclear reactors was shut down for some period of time. This naturally caused a significant rise in Japan’s consumption of fossil fuels, as the “peaking power” plants in the country, largely oil or gas fired, were forced to work overtime to keep the lights on. At the same time domestic consumers have been forced to cut back on their electricity consumption in order to cope .
Of course, this merely serves to makes a mockery of some of the claims put forward by supporters of nuclear energy (two good video segments on this from the Kaiser Report, here and here). The light’s did not go out (as the nuclear energy supporters had long prophesied that they could) with all the reactors offline. Supporters of nuclear energy will often ignore economic projects suggesting that renewable are now cheaper than nuclear power (both on an installed kW basis and a LCOE basis, I’ve got a good discussion and few links on that here). They’re typical response is to insist on piling a large number of (generally overestimated) costs associated with “backing up” renewables. But as Fukushima shows, Nuclear also needs to be backed up by something (and in any event nuclear reactors can’t do peaking power loads, so something else on the grid needs to be installed to do that). Similarly, the supposed reliability of nuclear power must also be challenged, particularly for countries that use large number of reactors of a similar design – such as France! Indeed, the new French government has plans to reduce its dependency on nuclear, post Fukushima.
Anyway, clearly the current situation will not continue for long. I suspect that eventually a number of these nuclear reactors will be turned back, indeed they are already in the process of turning back on the first one. Japan has simply too much of an investment in nuclear power (with too many jobs and corporate contracts tied up in the industry) too back out now. However, while some reactors will be turned on, it is clear that there has been a seismic shift (if you’ll pardon the metaphor) in Japan’s energy policy.
Some of Japan’s older reactors will never be restarted and will probably be decommissioned. Many of those (newer) reactors that do restart will have likely undergone substantial modifications, will probably now go offline more frequently (as a precaution to some perceived danger) and will generally have higher running costs and lower electricity output. With Japan’s nuclear power utilities and there shareholders now more acutely aware of the financial implications of a nuclear accident, it is difficult to envisage a like for like replacement of Japan’s nuclear fleet, not unless the government opens its cheque book and bankrolls it all (which with current Japanese debt levels seems unlikely) and finds some way of winning over a now hostile (and increasingly anti-nuclear) populace. Consequently nuclear power output will probably now fall as a percentage of the nation’s energy output. More importantly this means that the many ambitious expansion plans the Japanese nuclear industry has longed hoped to implement, will now likely never go ahead.
Also many of the various nuclear boondoggles that they’ve wasted many billions over the years on, will now also likely face the austerity axe. This includes proposals to extract seawater from Uranium (doesn’t really work for reasons laid out by the following academic sources), Thorium reactors (not economic and too immature, see here), Fast reactors (don’t work!), or MOX (the failure of Fukushima Number 2 reactor was made worse by the presence of MOX, leading me to question the wisdom of using it any more) and the $20 Billion+ Rokkasho reprocessing plant (with no MOX or Fast Reactor fuel to process it will have nothing to do).
So while I would argue that rumours of the Japanese nuclear industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated, its future is distinctly muted and generally downhill.
How to build a low carbon Japan without nuclear
But how will Japan meet its Kyoto treaty obligations without Nuclear power many ask? I’ll try to give an overview of how this could be achieved.
Figure 1: The Japanese energy mix [Credit: EIA 2010]
Firstly, I think its important to accept reality, Japan like many western countries will be dependant on fossil fuels for sometime to come. As I conclude here, while there is not technical reason why we couldn’t ultimately swap over to 100% renewables, the problem is the shear logistics of such an endeavour and the time it would take to build all the infrastructure. Incidentally, nuclear is of little help here because its much more expensive than renewables, has drastically slower build rate (currently nuclear power is struggling to replace ageing capacity worldwide), also needs much of that same support infrastructure (electric cars I can buy, but ships? planes? Industrial heat sources?, how do you store energy to cope with daily and seasonal peaks in demand?) and nuclear power is ultimately constrained by long term supplies of Uranium and Thorium.
Figure 2: Japanese energy Consumption, by sector [Credit: RSBS]
Consequently I would firstly focus on cleaning up fossil fuels, by using carbon capture and storage, but also focus heavily on energy efficiency. As I’ve pointed out before (as regards the UK) the bulk of most nations energy consumption is heating and cooling, mostly in domestic dwellings (37% for the UK, 27% of Japanese energy consumption), industrial heat (probably about a quarter of the above figure for industry, or around 10% of total energy output) and transport fuels (again about 36% in the UK and 23% in Japan (based on figures calculated from the EIA here). Indeed it is here that the bulk of fossil fuels are consumed (gas for domestic hot water heating, cooking and electricity and oil used as transport fuels for cars). So the first thing to do would be to cut back on energy consumption by making homes more energy efficient (better insulation, improved solar gain management, integration of renewables, etc.).
Improving public transport to reduce unnecessary car journeys, would also be useful. But there is less scope for that in Japan, as it already has a highly effective public transport system. However, Japanese cars could become more fuel efficient, and they could also look at moving more goods by rail, rather than just passengers.
Figure 3 – Energy Consumption by speed and performance [Credit: adapted from J.D. Chapman (1989) Geography and Energy: Commercial Energy Systems and National Policies, New York: Longman Scientific & Technical]
One thing the Japanese definitely need to focus on phasing out is the 10% of its electricity generating capacity (again see statistics here) that still comes from oil fired “peaking” plants (expensive and long term supply issues). An additional 25% of electricity that comes from coal (dirty!), needs to be either phased out or converted to CCS operation as a stop gap measure.
Combined Heat, Power…..and cooling!
Also, I would point out the benefits of CHP, as this can produce significant energy savings by using some of the 70-55% of heat energy that is thrown away by power stations to provide domestic heating and hot water. Also, Trigeneration can, with the aid of an absorption chiller, allow such systems to be used to cool buildings in the summer months. CHP is proven technology and has been in large scale use in European countries for many years. Better still its scalable , going from medium sized power stations, right down to the size of a domestic boiler.
Figure 4– CHP unit with Tri-generation, producing hot water, cooling water and electricity [Credit: 2G Energy]
Adding up the figures above, we can estimate that roughly 37% of Japan’s energy demand represents domestic heating/cooling or industrial heating, anywhere between 30-50% of such loads would be suitable for conversion to CHP/Trigeneration. While CHP units will be consuming fossil fuels (initially, more on that later) the fact that they will effectively cut Japan’s energy consumption by anything from 12-20% at a stroke (you will note that even the lower figure would almost wipes out the country’s nuclear capacity!), greatly reducing carbon emissions. This would be particularly true if we engaged in a “swap” of CHP capacity with the country’s coal and oil fired thermal plants (those plants too old or in-efficient to be converted to CCS) and nuclear baseload capacity (which is probably going to disappear anyway, and better CHP plants than more coal fired stations!).
Also another benefit of building lots of CHP plants is that you effectively turn many Japanese home and office buildings into they’re own mini power station. If some emergency raises the risk of electricity shortages (such as another nuclear accident, or a typhoon causes a number of renewable systems to shut down) then, with the aid of “smart grid” technology, all the CHP units in the country can be turned on (there might be some technical issues with heat rejection in this scenario, however most modern CHP units rely on recuperation from the exhaust anyway, easing the process of heat rejection, a cooling unit on the roof would make up for any difference with large units), adding a couple of GW’s of electricity to the grid, all at the flick of a few switches! allowing the country to weather the storm (as it were). Hence CHP would give Japan greater “grid resilience” which is important given the issues in the country with its two frequency grid.
Incidentally, nuclear supporters will generally pour scorn on CHP (good example here), as they obviously recognise that it competes with nuclear for (upper) base load electricity capacity and its presence (i.e. grid resilience) largely negates the need for nuclear energy. But the ignore the fact that the whole point of CHP is to save energy that is otherwise going to go to waste – The only practical and economic way to generate most of the above mentioned heat loads is often by combustion of a fuel of some sort (biomass, natural gas, hydrogen, oil, etc.), and we need peaking plants (again supplied by some sort of “fuel”) on the grid to deal with fluctuations in demand, CHP combines these two tasks and saves energy.
CHP units can also be powered by a variety of alternative fuels, ranging from biofuels too hydrogen (potentially generated by the renewable sources, I discuss this in more detail here). So there is a level of “backward compatibility” built in to this proposal. Also, as noted, biofuels can make an important contribution, eventually hopefully rendering these CHP units not just a “energy saving” solution, but a source of zero carbon energy also.
Japan’s chemical industry, wood processing, fishing and food production industry’s all provide obvious sources of biofuel/biomass feedstock, if they were given the right incentives! The following studies look at the potential impact of biomass and biofuels (full paper here) and there potential usage in Japan. Although the latter source primarily focuses on biofuels use in the automotive sector.
Of course, that is a valid point, as biofuels can power not just CHP units or power stations, but also cars and planes. While neither author suggests that biomass can do anything other than make a modest contribution to Japan’s energy needs, its a capability the Japanese would be fools to continue to ignore. Not least because the bulk of biofuels discussed involved “waste management”. Why throw away perfectly good fuel!
Sitting on a Volcano
But certainly in the longer term Japan needs to build up its renewable energy usage levels. For too long the nuclear darling has been favoured by Japan at the expense of renewables. This is very disappointing when you consider that Japan has actually got some pretty good renewable resources.
Notably Japan’s geothermal energy potential has been under-exploited. It has been estimated that Japan could potentially generate between 23.5 GW’s (assuming a 70% capacity factor, that would represent 144 Billion kWh’s of capacity) to 128 GW’s (or 1,100 Billion kWh’s), from geothermal energy, between 14-110% of current Japanese electricity production. Consider that, at present, Japan gets just 532 MW’s from Geothermal. So either scenario would represent a major shift in energy policy. One of the advantages of geothermal is that it has a reasonably high capacity factor, making it a good choice as far as a “like for like” swap with nuclear or coal. Also, as with all thermal plants, the heat generated by geothermal plants can also be used for heating purposes (industrial, hot water, district heating, etc.).
An Island nation
Even so, if there’s one lesson to learn from Fukushima, it’s the danger of being too dependant on any energy source. Certainly wind energy, wave and tidal energy should also be exploited. In all categories Japan has quite good wave heights, reasonable average wind speeds near the coasts and a good tidal range (thought generally only in the south of the country, notably off the West coast of Kyushu) to support such projects.
Figure 5, wind energy potential in the Asia/Pacific region [credit: Allianz]
The Tidal power option is important, as tides are regular and predictable, making it a more reliable source of renewable energy than wind power alone. Also, one could envisage building tidal lagoon systems and wave energy generators in the path of towns vulnerable to a future Tsunami. While they wouldn’t stop such a calamity, they could be arranged such that they would break the power of such a wave and lessen the damage inland. In any even, I doubt you’ll need to stage a mass evacuation because a few wave energy generators went “out of control” in a Tsunami, or got attacked by terrorists!
Japan’s rivers and mountains means hydroelectricity makes a modest, but important contribution the country’s energy needs (about 8% of electricity production, 3% of TEC), although there are only a limited number of locations where new facilities could be built. Alternatively, micro and mini hydroelectric facilities could make a modest, but important contribution, particularly if integrated with the aforementioned smart grid technology and utilised to back up the more intermittent renewable energy sources.
Should the land of the rising Sun make more use of the Sun?
Installing solar panels on people’s roof’s is also good as it improves a nation’s energy mix. And with solar PV prices falling, it makes good economic sense too. Solar energy is no longer just for hippies!
Figure 6, Solar energy ranges in Japan [Credit: GENI (Global Energy Network Institute)]
Solar PV also happens to be an industry that Japan has previously invested in (but again not nearly enough) so clearly the country should “play to its strengths”. As with CHP, there is an element of building in “grid resilience” here also, as you effectively turn every building into its own power station, negating the need for large fossil fuel (or nuclear) power plants, other than a few facilities to provide back up and peaking load output.
I would also note as regards solar the value of “load matching”. That is matching energy demand to energy sources. This is important to any discussion of solar energy. Air-con demand tends to rise when its sunny and hot – which is exactly when solar PV systems hit peak output.
Figure 7, typical profile of Californian electricity demand, overlaid with Solar energy output [Credit: Thinkprogress.com]
For many Japanese homes hot water is a big part of their energy consumption, so I would recommend installing a few solar thermal water heaters on those roof’s while the PV installers are up there. There is some talk of “hybrid” PVT systems that generate both hot water and electricity from the one system, although they are new to the market and its still unclear whether they offer as good value for money as a separate PV and solar thermal system.
Also speaking of Solar thermal, it brings up the issue of solar CSP (Concentrating Solar Power). Generally most experts would argue that Japan isn’t the ideal place for CSP, as they typically require large areas of generally flat land and good reliable sunshine (i.e. less cloud cover). However, falling costs for CSP and the fact it is scalable and can be easily mass produced, might overwhelm these obstacles and make it economically viable in the country.
Figure 8, Solar CSP plant, 24/7 operation [Credit: IEA]
CSP is particularly useful because, like PV it tends to be a good “fit” with air con systems powered by electricity. Also, using molten salts the energy output from CSP plants can be stored, allowing power to be delivered overnight, indeed it is possible to arrange a CSP plant to function as a “peaking power” source (unlike a nuclear reactor!). But personally, I think CSP in Japan would likely prove a bridge too far (I discuss some of these issues in the context of DESERTEC in this link here), but I still won’t dismiss them altogether.
What’s the hold up?
But, how do we go from the above vision to reality? What’s the main obstacle? I would argue that Japan’s single minded obsession with nuclear has been a big part of the problem. As in the UK the Japanese nuclear industry have fought tooth and nail to clear the path for its “precious”, often by lobbying against renewables.
It is still difficult to believe that Japan only recently began bringing in renewable energy subsidies, when it’s been wasting many trillions of Yen annually on nuclear power. Indeed, I would note that there is still a “gap” of sorts as regards “Renewable Heat”. As noted earlier, a good proportion of Japan’s energy use is heat, not just electricity, and a lot of this is currently meet by fossil fuels. A RHI is useful in that in encourages the installation of Heat producing renewable energy sources as well (ground and air source heat pumps, Biomass boilers, CHP units, solar thermal water heaters, etc.), which can potentially have a bigger impact on carbon emissions that focusing purely on electricity. Ultimately, a carbon tax, to counter the effective subsidies given out to fossil fuels, is also essential.
Clearly the powers-that-be within the Japanese nuclear industry need to realise that they can choose to be either part of the solution (by focusing on a reduced number of smaller, more specialised reactors to fulfil certain niche energy roles we can’t yet meet with renewables), or continue to be part of the problem. In which case the newly invigorated anti-nuclear lobby, and a now sceptical Japanese government bureaucracy (which sees the nuclear industry as more of a burden) will sooner or later get sufficient parliamentary support to turn out their lights – for good!