In December 2012, on the eve of an election that would return the aggressively pro-nuclear/anti-renewable energy Liberal Democratic Party to power, firms and government bodies involved in renewable energy held their annual trade fair in Tokyo. It was the first major gathering of Japan’s major renewable energy corporate and government players since the introduction of the Feed-In Tariff in July. Fresh Currents contributor Winifred Bird attended the exhibition, which offered a unique look into the reality behind the rhetoric of Japan’s attempts to embrace renewable energy.
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In 1999, most Germans got their electricity from a handful of powerful utilities burning coal and operating nuclear plants. Thirteen years later, the country has officially agreed to phase out nuclear power, solar power has soared 1,000-fold, and consumers can choose from over 800 different power suppliers – many of them community- or cooperative-owned. The German word for this incredible transformation is Energiewende, or “energy change.”
As US environmental journalist Osha Gray Davidson writes in Clean Break, his fascinating, if somewhat breathless, recent account of the German Energiewende, the key has been “policy, policy, policy.” I read Gray Davidson’s e-book with avid interest just a few days before attending the Renewable Energy 2012 and PV Japan 2012 exhibitions near Tokyo. In July, Japan implemented a Feed-in Tariff that guarantees a higher-than-market-level price to anyone selling renewable energy to the grid. A similar tariff was central to expanding renewable energy in Germany. But Germany’s renewable energy success was also due to breaking the power of its huge utilities – something Japan has yet to accomplish.
Nevertheless, the Tokyo exhibition promised an opportunity to see how the new energy tariffs had affected the energy market. I wanted to find out if Japan was on the road to accomplishing what Germany has shown is possible.
The outlines of an answer were already clear as I stood at the top of the stairs looking down on the huge hall full of booths. To the right, government research institutes, university labs, non-governmental organizations, and an assortment of experimental technology developers huddled in a modest wedge of space. To the left, a carnival-like expanse of corporations flaunting solar cells and related technology sprawled across the remaining two-thirds of the floor space. Solar, it seemed, was booming.
Down on the floor I made a beeline for the back corner, where one of the biggest players in Japan’s newly thriving mega-solar sector, Kyocera, had a booth. Getting there wasn’t easy. Joining a herd of soberly-dressed men, I pushed past women in Santa-style miniskirts handing out tissues, women in Mountie-style miniskirts touting Canadian technology, and women in futuristic miniskirts reeling off statistics about nuclear reactor giant Toshiba’s efficient new rooftop panels. (The solar industry gets a D- for gender equality.) Neon lights and elevator music blasted in competing keys from the big displays. Finally, I reached Kyocera’s booth, where thankfully no miniskirts were in sight.
“We’re going at full capacity. We can’t keep up with production,” Futoshi Inaba, a young salesman from the company’s European division, told me. Together with two other companies, Kyocera recently started building what will be Japan’s biggest solar farm, a 70-megawatt installation in Kagoshima. Inaba said that two years ago sales were split about seventy-thirty between foreign and domestic markets. With the Feed-in Tariff providing a strong incentive for domestic investors, those figures are now reversed. “The foreign outlook is pretty dark. But in Japan we have mountains of orders,” said Inaba, who works from Germany.
The message was the same at nearly every other booth I stopped by. Ryoko Arai, Chief of Marketing for Canadian Solar’s Japan branch, which opened three years ago and has a 50-megawatt solar farm in the works, told me shipments have doubled since the tariff went into effect.
“You can feel something is happening. Everyone is rushing into the market,” said Stefan Horn, Director of Business Development in the Asia Pacific and Middle East for Q. Cells, another of the world’s top solar companies, as he sipped a beer in a quiet corner of the Q. Cells booth. Even the spokeswoman at beleaguered electronics manufacturer Sharp seemed positive about solar. “Yes, competition from cheap imported panels is an issue, but right now growth is out-speeding competition,” she said.
To German Aerospace Center scientist Marc Linder, the excitement felt very much like what he experienced in Germany several years ago to. The technology he saw was comparable, too. In Germany, however, research is now shifting towards methods for storing renewable energy – Dr. Linder’s area of specialty. Even though the field is “Asia-dominated,” he spotted just one booth at the conference focused on storage.
Storage wasn’t the only section of the exhibit that felt disappointing. Wind, geothermal, mini-hydropower, and biomass energy have all been eligible for generous tariffs since July, but none seemed to be booming quite like solar. A lot of the stalls looked suspiciously like science fair exhibits. At one hydropower booth, a researcher had decorated a model of a new system for filtering leaves out of dams with his toy airplane collection. A spokesman at the lone citizen’s organization I managed to find was barely able to articulate the group’s projects. The aisles were nearly empty.
Of course, some neat stuff was on display. At a booth perplexingly labeled “Earth Milk Project,” a woman in a sparkling-white lab coat showed me a prototype for a micro-hydro generator that could easily be placed in creeks or irrigation canals. The simple plastic form funnels water into what looks like an oversized traffic cone, tripling flow to boost energy production. At the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology booth, I peered at a canister of yellowish gel that turned out to be a coating made from clay and plastic. The film is so airtight it can be painted onto the inside of a plastic tank to render it safe for holding hydrogen gas. That means cars running on hydrogen won’t have to carry around heavy metal canisters. None of these interesting ideas, however, seemed poised to topple the fossil-fuel-nuclear-power Hydra.
The mood at several wind power booths was decidedly dour. “The Feed-in Tariff price is the best in the world [for small-scale wind farms] but there are other problems in the industry,” said the Japan Wind Power Association’s Takao Hanaoka, jogging his fists jockey-style as if to indicate the frustrated eagerness of potential wind farmers. Leading me to a map of Japan, he pointed out the mismatch between the windiest locations (Hokkaido, Kyushu) and the highest demand for electricity (Tokyo, Osaka). New transmission lines must be built, he said. Laws need amending, too, especially a new one requiring lengthy environmental assessments for wind farms, and others limiting the use of farmland for energy production.
Off-shore wind farms would avoid many of these obstacles, and tests are starting now. However, Hanaoka said commercial construction is at least five years away. “Japan’s seas are very deep, so floating structures are necessary. In Europe they use mostly anchored turbines. There are still some technical problems with the floating types,” he said. Photos of a pilot project that could solve some of those problems were on display nearby, at a booth run by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), a government funding agency. “There’s been a lot of cooperation between NEDO and academics recently for off-shore wind,” a representative of the Japan Wind Energy Association told me. Could change be in the air for the wind sector?
I pondered that possibility as I wandered back towards the solar bonanza. Something about the expo was bothering me. Gray Davidson had written that the secret to Germany’s “energy change” was “policy, policy, policy.” And policy did indeed appear to be stimulating impressive growth in Japan’s solar industry. But the author also described a country where ordinary citizens were deeply involved in producing and distributing energy. Villagers dug trenches to bring hot water from a biogas digester to their homes. Nuclear activists formed renewable energy cooperatives to generate their own alternatives. “You can’t wait for what you want to come from above,” Ursula Sladek, the founder of one such cooperative, told him. “We are here. We can do something.”
What I saw at Japan’s energy exhibition was not a fundamental change in the relationship between citizens and their energy sources but rather a parade of new things to buy. That’s what I should have expected from a trade fair, of course. All the same, I found myself wondering if ordinary people in Japan were committed enough to renewable energy to sustain the growth bubble policy has created. Would they push for the further structural reforms needed to truly open up alternative energy markets? Even in Germany, the future for renewable energy is not certain. “If society is willing to pay for it, you can do all sorts of fancy things,” said Marc Linder, the German scientist. “In October we had an 11% increase in our electricity prices [to pay for the increased share of renewables]. It’s on the bill and you can see it. People who were just on the border of supporting renewable energy can get turned off. For the first time we started really talking about the costs.”
Japan may very well face a similar situation in the future. The trick in the meantime will be to build a base of popular support for renewable energy that is broad, deep, and engaged enough to remain in place even after policy props fade away. And that, I thought to myself as I walked out the glass doors of the conference center, will probably happen far away from the neon-lit booths of a trade fair.
WINIFRED BIRD lives in Nagano prefecture, is a Kyoto Journal contributing editor, and correspondent for The Japan Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and numerous other publications. She has written many thoughtful post-Fukushima articles (including an 8-part series on renewable energy for The Japan Times) here: http://www.winifredbird.com/ See also her other articles for Fresh Currents: Grow Your Own Energy & Energy Efficiency.