Japan's Power Grid May Make It Impossible To Reach Post-Nuclear Energy Goals

japan wind energy

Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the government of Japan has greatly increased their goals for cutting down fossil fuel and nuclear power. Their latest goal is to generate 20% of electricity from renewables by the year 2020.

This goal may be far too ambitious, or even impossible with Japan’s peculiar energy infrastructure.  Waseda University professor Hayashi Yasuhiro told the Japan Times that the grid that is currently in place can only handle about 10,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy–not even close to the government’s target.

“Electricity from solar and wind sources is wild. The amount generated fluctuates greatly,” Hayashi told the newspaper.  “Everyone turns on their rice-cooker around the same time in the morning, goes to work and school around the same time, and watches television at night around the same time. That makes for big peaks and valleys in power use.”

The energy infrastructure in Japan has its peculiarities.  Each region is a self-contained system with one power company that controls production and distribution, and thus, a surplus in one area cannot mitigate a shortfall in another.  They currently make up for differences between demand and supply by burning fossil fuels. With a less predictable source of energy like wind and solar, power companies cannot adjust the supply of power to meet demand.

Further complicating the matter, Japan lacks a single national grid.  Western and Eastern Japan use different frequencies, a legacy of Tokyo’s original German-built generator and Osaka’s American one. 

Prime Minister Kan has called for an overhaul of the energy network that could break up the power companies’ regional monopolies.  The political feasibility of this move is uncertain given the PM’s dismal popularity in among Japanese, including members of his own party. The Liberal Democratic Party would predictably oppose tha too, since power company executives are among the party’s top political donors.

Japan is a net energy importer.  About 80% of Japan’s energy is imported, mostly in the form of gas and oil.  If they abandon nuclear and renewables can’t catch up, Japanese might have to ditch the abundant neon, vending machines that use as much energy as entire households, and air-conditioning blowing out the open doors of convenience stores. 

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