Japan’s Energy Conundrum

Post from Jean Thilmany:

This past weekend, many news outlets marked the one-year anniversary of the Japanese 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused great damage to the country and 19,000 deaths, and that destabilized the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

With one year’s distance, the news outlets have checked in also with the state of Japan’s power industries. In an attempt to meet climate change goals set under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan had planned to increase nuclear power capacity to more than half of its total electricity requirement by 2030.

But with the earthquake, all that has changed.

A story on National Public Radio on March 10 reported that, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, replacing the electricity from idled nuclear plants is costing Japan an extra $100 million a day. Then there are the climate effects. The nuclear reactors were not emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Oil, coal, and natural gas do.

Japan’s goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is now shelved. In fact, emissions are going up, Jesse Jenkins, an energy analyst at a research group called the Breakthrough Institute, told NPR. That’s because Japan is swapping fossil fuels for nuclear and that’s driving up their CO2 emissions and the carbon intensity of their electricity supply.

Most of the new fuel is liquefied natural gas. It’s cleaner than coal or oil, but Laszlo Varro, with the International Energy Agency, said Japan would need almost 20 percent of the entire global market of liquefied natural gas if it doesn’t return to nuclear power.

But buried amid the report—indeed little highlighted in any new commemoration of the earthquake, but there reported nonetheless—is this tidbit: The Japanese government has expressed a strong sentiment to adopt a new energy mix that relies mostly on wind and solar power.

That will take decades, though. Renewable energy in Japan now provides about 2 percent of the nation’s electricity; nuclear provided 30 percent. Still, there’s a great deal of hope for success. Last month, Japan’s environment ministry announced plans to allow power generation by extracting geothermal heat from the nation’s national parks.

According to the NPR report, Japanese engineers are second to none. American engineers may resent the hubris. But as Japan begins its recovery and starts turning its attention toward renewable energy sources, engineers around the globe may begin sharing strategies and projects to move all nations toward renewable sources.

And Americans, who will need to rely more on renewable energy themselves in the near future, can only benefit as Japanese engineers pour their own energies into investigating new technologies that will allow them to source these projects.


1 Response to “Japan’s Energy Conundrum”

  1. September 25, 2016 at 9:16 pm

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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