Editorial: Renewable energy system is launched

2012 is likely to be remembered as the dawn of renewable energy in Japan. Yesterday, July 1, brought the launch of the nation’s renewable energy feed-in tariff, a system in which electricity generated by renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, and geothermal, is purchased at fixed prices. The new system holds the key to transforming Japan into a sustainable society that no longer will rely on nuclear energy.

With the aim of accelerating the use of the system, the purchase prices have been set at a level that electricity producers are satisfied with, on the whole. The system obliges the ten existing electric companies to purchase all electricity generated by electricity producers at fixed prices for a period of 20 years. This rule will apparently make it easier for even newcomers to anticipate their income and expenses.

In the Chugoku region, comprised of five prefectures including Hiroshima, it is estimated that the amount of electricity generated by solar and wind power from such stations, including facilities still in the planning stage, will be equivalent to the electricity generated by one nuclear power plant.

In particular, the development and operation of large-scale electricity-generating stations, dubbed “mega solar plants,” is moving forward at an impressive pace, with solar power purchased at 42 yen per kilo watt, including tax, the highest rate among renewable energy sources. A total of 22 “mega solar plants” are set to be built in the five prefectures of the Chugoku region. The further spread of this system can therefore be expected.

However, while businesses are focusing on the renewable energy market, the benefits to be gained by local communities are still lacking. By merely providing such resources as land and a sunny environment to operators, local communities are not taking full advantage of their opportunities. They must not allow this situation to persist.

If local communities can launch electricity enterprises themselves, they would be able to create employment. Reinvesting the profits earned through selling electricity can help create a community where the local consumption of locally-produced energy, and its sustainability, is guaranteed.

In that sense, it is certainly commendable that the Japanese government has shifted its policy to enable electricity produced by existing power stations to become available for purchase under the conditions set by the new system. Further momentum must now be created to assess local renewable energy sources.

The Chugoku region also contains a number of small-scale energy stations which make use of water power from small streams and agricultural irrigation channels. In addition, biomass generation, using wood chips, should be carefully considered.

In a survey conducted by the Chugoku Shimbun, nearly 80 percent of heads of municipalities in the five prefectures in the region expressed support for reducing or eliminating the use of nuclear energy. Citing their reasons, over 30 percent stated that “natural energy sources can replace nuclear energy.” To realize this goal, the wisdom and administrative ability of local government officials will be put to the test.

The new system has drawbacks as well. One involves homes and businesses paying larger electricity bills, since producing energy with renewable sources is more costly. It is estimated that the average household in Japan must shoulder an additional 87 yen per month in this fiscal year.

In order to expand the use of renewable energy, the system asks that consumers share a suitable amount of the burden this scheme demands. We wonder, though, how much burden consumers will be willing to bear.

At the same time, consumers should have the chance to benefit from this transformation in energy use by becoming generators of energy themselves. In areas where these efforts have advanced, community associations and cooperatives are accelerating such measures as installing solar panels on the roofs of buildings and schools, and establishing funds with investments made by citizens.

Last year the price of solar panels overseas was reportedly cut in half. A further drop in price can be anticipated. However, if solar panels become widespread and electricity costs begin to soar, a review of the purchase price will be inevitable.

Another drawback of the system involves its reliance on the vagaries of nature. A new type of undertaking, known as the “hybrid power station,” may help address this difficulty. It combines solar power, which does not generate energy at night, with wind power, which produces energy when the wind blows. In Japan, stable geothermal power can be added to the mix.

Compared to the total in 2007, the world’s investment in renewable energy sources doubled last year. Japan should now move to catch up with the nations leading this field by learning from their successes and setbacks.

At the same time, our own lifestyles will have to change, from night owls to early birds, to suit this new era of renewable energy.

(Originally published on July 2, 2012)