Japan continues to rely on coal-fired plants despite global criticism
Japan may be feeling the effects of global warming more than ever with the series of natural disasters that hit the archipelago this summer, but this resource-poor country is sticking with coal-fired energy production that emits more than double the carbon dioxide generated by liquid natural gas-fueled plants. To meet its pledge to the world in the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, Japan aims to achieve a 26 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by fiscal 2030 from the fiscal 2013 level. But the government has drawn a lot of criticism from both in and outside the country for going against the international trend to move away from coal. In November 2017, Japan was again embarrassed by winning a “Fossil of the Day Award” for its failure to make sufficient efforts to tackle climate change. The award’s organizer, Climate Action Network, said that “Japan together with the U.S. administration is still trying to promote nuclear and coal, which hinders efforts for expanding renewable energy in developing countries. Japan should change its anachronistic policy on coal and nuclear.” Why is Japan facing all this criticism? Below we discuss some of the reasons and explore current and future trends related to coal-fired power plants in Japan. How much does Japan rely on coal? Coal-fired plants provided 32.3 percent of the country’s total electricity in fiscal 2016, whereas reliance of natural gas stood at 42.2 percent and nuclear power at 1.7 percent. Japan has around 90 coal power plants and companies were planning to build 30 more with a total capacity of 16,730 megawatts (MW) as of March. Why does this country continue to turn to coal? Japan is poor in resources such as oil and natural gas, and it built numerous coal-fired power plants in the aftermath of the “oil shock” of the 1970s in order to reduce dependency on oil and diversify its energy sources. The country also increased its dependency on nuclear power and liquefied natural gas. As climate change issues grew in importance, the government, in its basic energy plan endorsed in 2010, sought to increase reliance on nuclear to 53 percent of the total and reduce that of coal to 11 percent by 2030. But the Fukushima No. 1 disaster threw that plan into disarray. Under the current plan, the government is aiming to rely on nuclear power for 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity, and coal for 26 percent by fiscal 2030. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry considers coal “an important baseload source” due to its cheapness and stable supply compared with renewables. Construction of small coal-fired power projects has also been the rise on the back of deregulation of the power industry in recent years, with METI saying that intensifying competition is leading existing power companies to turn to what they perceive as cheap and stable power sources. Is coal-fired power the cheapest source of energy produced in Japan? Not really. Power generation costs fluctuate and at times natural gas is less expensive. Coal was the third cheapest at ¥12.3 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) after nuclear energy at ¥10.1, according to a report by METI that calculated power generation costs for 2014. LNG was rated at ¥13.7 per kWh. But in another calculation that looked into the costs as of 2016, using the same methodology as METI, coal-fueled power stood at ¥11.35 per kWh and LNG was the cheapest at ¥8.58, according to the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. The center attributed the change to a decline in fossil fuel prices: Coal had dropped 24.6 percent and LNG had fallen 57.1 percent from 2014. Don’t energy companies have to pass environmental assessments before constructing coal-fired power plants? Coal plants that generate less than 112.5 MW do not need to go through the government assessment process, which according to nongovernmental organization Kiko Network can take six to seven years from initial planning to the start of operations. Small-scale plants can begin operations in just a few years after initial planning. In the government assessment process, power companies have to determine the environmental impact. This includes discussions with experts, local municipalities and residents. A 112-MW plant in Miyagi Prefecture that began operating last October has been met with a massive backlash from local residents. The wrangling has led people living in the area to file a lawsuit against the operator of the Sendai Power Station to shut down the plant over health concerns. How harmful are coal power plant emissions to human health? Burning coal produces gases that contain pollutants, mainly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. They are the major sources of PM2.5 airborne toxic particles and ozone pollution that can cause health and environmental problems. The government has ordered all coal plant operators to install filters to eliminate emissions of the harmful substance. But Kiko Network has pointed out that even though operators claim the latest filters can remove over 95 percent of pollutants, it is impossible to stop them all from escaping into the air. According to an estimate based on a 2017 study by Daniel Jacob, an atmospheric chemistry professor at Harvard University, pollutants emitted from coal-fired power plants currently operating in Japan lead to the premature death of 1,117 people every year. And that number is expected to increase to 1,572 if new power plants come into service. Are there ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from using coal-fired plants? One option promoted by the government is “clean coal” technologies such as ultra-supercritical coal-fired power (USC) plants. These are the most efficient type of coal-fired facility and use less coal than normal plants. USC plants achieve power generation efficiency of over 42 percent, compared with 39 percent for normal plants. USC plants also emit less carbon dioxide than normal ones, but they still emit nearly double the amount of LNG plants. METI is currently aiming to ensure that 50 percent of all coal-fired power comes from USC plants by 2030. Another solution for minimizing carbon dioxide emissions is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a system that collects and stores carbon dioxide waste underground. The government has begun CCS experiments in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, and has stored approximately 180,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the ground since 2016. In a report issued this year, METI said new technologies including CCS are a “must” if Japan is to drastically decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Japan’s stated long-term goal is to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050. But the Tomakomai area was hit by a magnitude 6.7 quake in September and concerns have been raised among residents and environmental groups regarding the system’s safety in quake-prone Japan.