New laws and new targets: renewable power in Japan

JP Casey 17 April 2020 (Last Updated June 9th, 2020 13:09)

Japan plans to increase its reliance on renewable power to 24% of its energy mix by 2030, more than double its current production. With new laws in place to encourage renewable projects, JP Casey profiles the country’s clean energy sources, and consider how realistic its 2030 goals are.

New laws and new targets: renewable power in Japan
Solar has been the driving force behind an increase in all renewable energy from 12.1% to 17.4% between 2014 and 2018. Credit: Σ64

Japan has big plans for the future of its renewables sector. New legislation introduced in 2017 aims to increase the country’s percentage of power from renewable sources, with greater government oversight of renewable projects to ensure their efficiency, and purchases of greater volumes of power from renewable sources.

This is particularly significant considering two factors: Japan’s reliance on energy from foreign sources, and its recent move away from nuclear power. The World Nuclear Association reported in 2019 that the country needs to import 90% of its energy, and following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Japan’s share of power from nuclear sources has collapsed from 30% in 2011 to a production target of just 20% by 2030.

With these in mind, Japan is turning to sources such as solar, wind and tidal power to reduce its dependence on overseas production, and trigger innovation in its domestic energy sector. We profile the country’s clean energy sources, and consider how realistic its 2030 clean energy goals are.

Solar power priorities

The Japanese Government has made investments in solar a priority, with the power source set to lead the way to a clean energy future. In 2015, the government announced cuts to the purchase price of electricity generated by solar power from $0.25 to $0.22 for non-household power sources, and around $0.30 to $0.28 for household customers, enabling a wider range of individuals and companies to purchase clean power.

This initiative is emblematic of a more long-term decline in the cost of producing solar power, with the average sale price of a solar module falling from $1.64 per watt in 2011 to just $0.70 per watt in 2018, according to the Renewable Energy Institute. These policies have resulted in an increase of solar’s contribution to the country’s energy mix from 1.9% in 2014 to 6.5% in 2018, the largest increase of any single energy source; as a result, solar has been the driving force behind an increase in all renewable energy from 12.1% to 17.4% over this period.

Due to limited space on land, floating solar power has made particular strides, with 73 of the world’s 100 largest floating solar plants operated by Japan. The largest project, at the Yamakura Dam, covers 18 hectares and powers close to 5,000 homes a year with a total capacity of 13,700kW.

These trends have led to increased attention in the solar sector by international energy companies, whose financial muscle and support for large-scale projects could accelerate this growth further. In October 2019, Total announced the construction of its third solar facility in Japan, the Miyahi Osato Solar Park, a 52MW plant that will double the company’s solar output in the country to 104MW.

With solar power, and particularly floating solar, growing exponentially around the world – the World Bank notes that annually installed solar capacity increased from 1MW in 2011 to 67MW in 2016 and 512MW in 2018 – Japan could be set to dominate the solar sector in years to come.

Potential for wind power

Due to Japan’s small land mass, offshore wind power could be the future of the country’s wind sector. In November 2019, the government passed a bill allowing wind farms to operate in the country’s waters for up to 30 years, a long-term commitment to offshore wind power that could deliver benefits well into the future.

This policy is especially significant considering the government did not lower feed-in tariff rates for onshore or offshore wind as it did with solar power, so wind power looks set to be a long-term investment for the country. Japan is committed to meeting 24% of its renewable energy goals by 2030, but a further 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and long-term commitments such as these will be vital to ensuring these targets are met.

In a similar manner to solar power, the support of large-scale companies will be vital to delivering these ambitions. Japanese firm Orix has committed $903m to build a wind farm off the coast of Chiba Prefecture, a facility which will provide 200MW of electricity, and is slated to begin production in 2025. There is parallel foreign support, with German energy company E.ON signing an agreement with domestic firm Kyuden Mirai to deliver offshore wind projects; the latter already provides 189MW of power from renewable sources, and plans to develop facilities for a further 511MW.

The Japan Wind Energy Association estimated that by 2030, 10GW of offshore wind capacity will be installed, which will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 70 million tonnes, and generate up to 90,000 new jobs. Considering Japan’s wind energy capacity was just 3,399MW according to the International Energy Agency, these goals are certainly ambitious, and Japan’s ability to deliver on these plans could make or break their 2030 climate goals.

Experimental tidal technology

While tidal power facilities are relatively new in Japan, there is significant potential for development. A paper published in a 2017 issue of the International Journey of Marine Energy predicted that 1,130 tidal power turbines could be constructed in the Naru, Takigawara and Tanoura straits in southern Japan, which could produce up to 106.78MW of power.

Tidal power has also attracted the attention of New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), a public research and development organisation in Japan. In a magazine published in 2017, NEDO highlighted a number of experimental technologies and tidal power solutions still in the trial stages, including a dual-bladed floating power generator, whose propellers spin in opposite directions to maintain its position, and a generator that converts the movement of air across the waves to electricity, which cuts installation costs by being built on shorelines.

Beyond these concepts, a number of deals have been put in place to bring tidal power to Japan. In 2018, British companies Xodus and Atlantis Resources signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a tidal facility in Japanese waters, while Simec Atlantis Energy, another British firm,was commissioned by Japanese utility company Kyuden Mirai energy for a $16m tidal demonstration project, which will generate 500kW of energy beginning in 2021.

While there is undoubted potential in Japan’s tidal power sector, delivering on these promises will be another matter. With details about construction timescales and expected production figures scarce, and many of the new developments reliant on the involvement of foreign companies, it remains to be seen how effectively Japan can deliver on these promises, and how beneficial these developments will be for the Japanese renewable sector as a whole.