Japan's "nuclear village" looks into renewable energy alternatives including solar

Energy policy has been in focus in Japan since the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and the continuing inability of engineers to contain radioactive leaks. The reactor’s meltdown occurred as a result of the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the region on March 11. Since then, public opinion has swung against nuclear production and the shadow of power cuts loom as the summer heat approaches.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s comments at the G8 rich nations meeting in France have been followed closely, as expectations of a fundamental shift in energy policy increase. At a press conference last week Kan committed, as part of the government’s review "from scratch" of their Basic Energy Plan, that renewables would contribute "20 percent of our electric power," by 2020. This brings forward the previous 20 percent goal by 10 years. At present, renewables only supply about one percent of Japan’s elecricity.

Reuters reported that Kan restated this goal while in France for the G8 meetings and added detail by saying the government aims to place solar panels on 10 million roofs in Japan by 2030. The Prime Minister also announced the goal of cutting solar power generation costs to one-third by 2020 and one-sixth by 2030.

Internal political tensions continue to provide a major challenge for Kan in terms of energy policy and these were highlighted in the wake of his solar expansion announcement. The Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, whose portfolio includes energy, has been reported in the Yomirui newspaper as saying that he had "not heard" of the Prime Minister’s plans prior to the G8 announcement. Kaieda went on to say that he intends to discuss financing of the 10 million solar units, "after (Kan) returning to Japan."

However, while a political storm about Japan’s solar future brews, manufacturers, financial institutions and unions are not waiting for a shift in government policy as they strike out in a new direction away from nuclear and towards renewables, including solar power.

The electric giant Toshiba has been the latest to herald a move towards renewables and a departure from its plans for vast nuclear technology and reactor exports. Reuters reports that earlier this week Toshiba announced that it will push back delivery of 39 nuclear reactors two to three years and will increase investment in solar technology and smart grids and meters. The company also announced it would buy Swiss smart meter manufacturer Landis+Gyr for around $2.4 billion.

Toshiba’s revised sales targets now also include sales in renewable technologies and equipment totaling $4.27 billion, including hydroelectric, geothermal and wind, and $10.98 billion in smart grids. Andrew DeWitt, energy policy specialist and Professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, told pv magazine that he’s not at all surprised with the electric company’s radical shift. "If the commitment to nuclear gets dropped and there’s a significant shift to renewables then they’ll go along with it," said DeWitt, "they’ve got significant profit opportunities in that and they may in fact do even better."

The trade union movement has also joined the move away from a nuclear future with the largest labor organization, the Rengo, backing away from their earlier position in support of nuclear energy. DeWitt said to pv magazine that this will help Prime Minister Kan’s Democratic Party move towards renewables. "Hitherto the Rengo had been committed to increasing the number of nuclear facilities and now they’ve come out and said that is no longer a part of our agenda," said DeWitt, "that’s a huge part of the Democratic voter and financial base."