Japan is proposing to double the share of solar and other renewable energy in its power grid and slash the share of fossil fuels to less than half during the next decade, as the world’s third-largest economy becomes the latest to unveil ambitious plans to remake its energy system.
The targets appear in a draft of Japan’s latest national energy strategy unveiled Wednesday. They incorporate a huge jump in carbon-cutting goals, reflecting an increased international sense of urgency around climate change. The draft calls for an ambitious reboot of Japan’s nuclear fleet—the bulk of which is still offline after the country’s nuclear meltdowns in 2011. It also proposes building a hydrogen supply chain and includes the fuel for the first time in its proposed energy mix.
But experts say the plan will be extremely tough to execute by its deadline of 2030. And the persistence in the proposed energy mix of a significant amount of coal—the worst carbon emitter of the fossil fuels—highlights the challenges Japan and many other countries, especially in Asia, will have in transforming their energy systems.
Although the goals themselves are laudable, “this is a problematic [energy] mix in many ways,” says Takeo Kikkawa, a vice president of the International University of Japan and a member of the advisory committee that consulted on the energy strategy.
Japan has little chance of hitting its renewable and nuclear-energy targets and set its fossil-fuel targets dangerously low, he says.
Japan is joining a host of countries rushing to boost their carbon-reduction plans ahead of a November climate-change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The European Union and China last week unveiled proposals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions; the Biden administration is readying its own slate of ideas.
Japan’s strategy must still be submitted for public comment, and then approved by the country’s cabinet before it is official.
The centerpiece of the draft is a road map laying out how Japan will achieve an ambitious greenhouse-gas-reduction target that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced at a U.S.-hosted climate summit in April. The target—a cut of 46% by 2030 versus 2013 levels—is 77% higher than what Japan had previously pledged, and brings the country largely in line with similar goals from Europe and the U.S.
It also sent Japanese bureaucrats scrambling to figure out just where those extra reductions would come from.
The draft road map calls for fossil fuels to comprise around 41% of Japan’s power generation by 2030—a seismic shift for a country that produces more than three-quarters of its electricity from gas, coal and oil, and until a few months ago had planned to keep that share over 50%.
The shift, if Japan can manage it, will help the country catch up to global emissions-reduction trends and help Japanese businesses that are struggling to stay abreast with international peers by bringing emissions down on their own.
“The lower the country’s share of fossil fuels goes, the easier it is for companies to reach CO2 zero targets,” says Ryuji Shimono, a general manager in the environmental division of Panasonic Corp. , which has joined a roster of multinational corporations pledging to power their global operations with 100% renewable energy.
To replace that fossil-fuel power, Japan proposes raising the share of renewable energy to as much as 38%—around twice the current share. That means energy officials had to figure out how much more solar and wind power Japan could squeeze into its already crowded land space and electric grid. The resulting figure wasn’t large enough, leading officials to propose accelerating an expansion of transmission lines that let them add more wind power.
The road map calls for as much as 22% of Japan’s power to come from nuclear reactors by 2030—a plan that would require the country to overcome local resistance to restarting the rest of its sidelined fleet and running it at unrealistically high levels, says Mr. Kikkawa.
Then there is coal, a fuel that Japan and many other countries in the region are heavily reliant on. International leaders like United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres have called on developed nations to eliminate the use of coal by 2030 and developing nations by 2040 to achieve global climate goals.
One big problem is that Japan and other countries in Asia—unlike Europe and the U.S.—have relatively young coal fleets, whose investment costs still haven’t been recovered. “It’s very hard to just say, ‘OK, we’ll get rid of them,’” says Yoko Ito, a coal analyst at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.
Japan is hoping to keep its coal and gas plants running while reducing carbon emissions by burning a mix of lower-carbon-emitting hydrogen and ammonia. The road map proposes that 1% of the country’s power come from hydrogen or ammonia in 2030—a challenge because Japan first has to build a supply chain and infrastructure to support the new fuels.
Even so, the proposed energy plan estimates that 19% of Japan’s power will be coming from coal in 2030, down from 32% in 2019.
“For Japan, this is the absolute farthest we can go,” says Mitsuhiro Nishida, director of the energy strategy office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
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