by Mark Pendergrast
This is my third and final post about the state of Japan’s renewable energy efforts and other measures that are vital to prevent further climate change and to wean the country from fossil fuel and nuclear power. In my first post, I covered the public-health impacts of climate change and explained why Japan is good indicator of whether countries will be able to act quickly enough in the face of these threats. Japan’s reliance on imported fossil fuels gives it a good reason to invest in alternatives, and its technological sophistication should help it develop renewable-energy technology. I investigated Japan’s use of renewable energy for my recently published book, Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World, and what I found was that the country has made progress in some areas but hasn’t realized much of its potential. In my second post, I discussed the country’s limited progress with solar and geothermal energy. Here I will cover Japan’s wind turbines, hydro-power, biomass, energy efficiency efforts, transit, food, lifestyle changes, and new feed-in tariff legislation.
The Winds of Japan
Wind power accounts for only 0.37 percent of Japan’s electricity, despite its potential to supply more than 10 percent. Wind is a challenge, however. Typhoons can rip off the gigantic 100-meter blades of wind turbines. Though they are meant to swivel (“yaw”) to remain perpendicular to the wind, the yaw control motors of most European and American turbines (currently the majority of those functioning in Japan) sometimes can’t react quickly enough, or are knocked out of service, when the eye of a typhoon sweeps through, with wind shifts up to 180 degrees. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developed a weather vane that automatically turns the blades so that they face away from the wind during a typhoon – the safest position. MHI has also overbuilt its support towers to prevent their being toppled by typhoons.
During the winter, when the warm waters of the Sea of Japan meet the cold air coming down from Siberia, fierce lightning storms strike the western coast of Japan. This winter lightning can fry or explode a turbine. MHI’s lightning rods are thus ten times thicker than European standards.
Japan’s complex, mountainous terrain also offers challenges to inland wind turbines, while those built on the coast to take advantage of strong ocean winds must be capable of withstanding tsunamis. And because Japan’s coastline has no continental shelf, off-shore wind farms are more difficult.
Local residents have opposed construction of nearby wind turbines out of concern that the low-frequency vibrations of turbine blades can contribute to headaches, dizziness, insomnia, and other ailments. While a component of low-frequency noise called “infrasound” has been suggested as a possible cause of negative health effects, there are few peer-reviewed studies about health effects related to wind turbines specifically. A recent summary article of peer-reviewed scientific studies, government reports, and popular literature/internet information, written by at a Canadian consulting firm with windpower clients and published in Environmental Health in September 2011, found no direct causal link between physiological health effects and living in proximity to wind turbines. The authors concluded:
In peer reviewed studies, wind turbine annoyance has been statistically associated with wind turbine noise, but found to be more strongly related to visual impact, attitude to wind turbines and sensitivity to noise. To date, no peer reviewed articles demonstrate a direct causal link between people living in proximity to modern wind turbines, the noise they emit and resulting physiological health effects. If anything, reported health effects are likely attributed to a number of environmental stressors that result in an annoyed/stressed state in a segment of the population.
Some in Japan have pointed out that after typhoons knocked out GE wind turbines on the Izu peninsula in 2003, many sufferers still did not recover from their reported health problems. Another concern about turbines is that the whirling blades can kill birds when placed in flight paths.
As with geothermal power, the best potential wind sites are in the less-populated north (Hokkaido, Tohoku) or south (Kyushu). Japan currently lacks a unified electric grid that can accommodate and distribute power to its large population centers. Because wind power is highly variable, a huge surge in power could knock out the system. The solution would be to monitor the turbines and stop the blades from turning if there is a danger of an overload. The best option, of course, would be to store the extra energy in huge batteries, but that isn’t feasible except on a minor local scale.
Wind power could literally begin to replace nuclear power plants, which are all located by the ocean with a good infrastructure in place to deliver power to the grid. Why not build wind farms in the same location? In fact, there are some wind turbines already in those areas.
Offshore turbines could work in a relatively shallow area less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo. Floating off-shore turbines are an unproven but enticing possibility for the future.
Taking Advantage of All That Water
Japan’s large hydroelectric dams were built decades ago, but with heavy rains and rushing mountain streams and rivers, citizens could be taking advantage of multiple smaller hydropower opportunities. The 26 existing large hydro dams produce 4.6 gigawatts. Dams that generate less than one megawatt contribute only 203 megawatts, but there are possible sites for thousands of them.
Big flood control hydro dams could increase their output by using advanced weather forecasts, thus allowing them to fill their reservoirs more effectively. The electric utilities could build new dams in the mid-power range, around 200,000 kilowatts. And local communities could use existing sabo dams (built to prevent erosion) and other rivers to generate smaller amounts. Taken together, these projects could conceivably double Japan’s current hydroelectric output.
But there are problems. Japan’s older large dams are silting up and will require expensive dredging. Also, dams can displace entire villages, as Michiko Ishimure’s 1997 novel, Lake of Heaven, depicted for a mountain community in Kyushu.
With careful planning, however, smaller hydro projects can contribute substantially to Japan’s renewable energy future. People ingenious enough to divert water for their rice paddies can surely also use that flow to produce electricity.
Biomass: Getting Energy from Plants
The magic of photosynthesis turns the sun’s energy into biomass, and humans have developed many ways to get that energy back. The simplest way, of course, is essential to our lives – we eat it. Japan once grew all of its own food and could do so again.
The average age of a Japanese farmer is 65, though there are some idealistic, dedicated young organic farmers. There are a few other hopeful signs. Forty years ago, for instance, the oriental white stork went extinct in Japan, killed by the mercury in pesticides. Thanks to Tetsuro Inaba, a farmer in the small town of Toyooka, the storks (bred in captivity and then released) are back and thriving, and the organic rice of Toyooka is branded as “Stork-Nurturing Rice.”
Yet 40 percent of Japan’s rice paddies lie fallow because people eat other (often imported) forms of starch. The government pays the farmers not to grow surplus rice. Instead, some have proposed using them to grow Hokuriku No. 193, a hardy, prolific strain of rice developed as animal feed. In several pilot programs, bioethanol has been made from this rice, but without a subsidy, it can’t compete with gasoline. It may suffer the same fate as plans to make bioethanol from Okinawan sugar cane – the powerful oil industry squelched it. Still, wouldn’t it be a simple matter for sake manufacturers to modify their process slightly and produce bioethanol as a sideline?
And instead of incinerating 80 percent of wasted food, why not compost it at the household level for the family garden? Or biodigest it to produce methane to burn to make electricity? And why not make compost out of human waste, provided it is not too tainted with chemicals and pharmaceuticals? In traditional Japan, human waste (“night soil”) was prized by farmers in outlying areas, who bought it to nourish their crops.
The Japanese government has unwisely subsidized about 100 factories to produce wood pellets out of the monoculture of spindly Japanese cedar planted after World War II. It requires a ridiculous amount of fossil fuel to turn the logs into sawdust and then compress them, and then no one buys them because wood pellet stoves are prohibitively expensive. Instead, why not use Japanese technological expertise to make small, inexpensive, energy-efficient wood stoves especially designed to burn cedar? True, it burns much faster than hardwood, but it splits easily, and when stacked and dried, it could provide cozy radiant heat (and local jobs) in rural areas. And it would smell wonderful while it waited. Such small stoves, placed at the heart of the home, would echo the irori, the traditional central firepit of the Edo-era Japanese home.
The Machiya With the Double-Glazed Windows
Those homes would be a lot cozier if they were well-insulated and had double-glazed windows. In the wake of the 1970s “oil shocks,” Japanese industries pioneered in energy efficiency, cutting their usage in half from their 1973 levels. Efforts focused particularly on the four sectors that were the biggest energy hogs – iron and steel, chemicals, cement, and paper. But over the ensuing years, even as energy consumption from industry declined, residential and commerce usage went up. In response, Japanese appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators were improved to cut energy use. But no building codes encouraged better insulation, double-glazed windows, or passive solar design.
Japanese housing since World War II has been notoriously flimsy, shoddily constructed, constricted, and expensive. It is a myth that traditional Japanese housing was also poorly made. The old houses were solid and relatively well insulated by straw-mud walls, though they were dark. Why not renovate them? And why not learn from the past while applying modern wisdom? Instead, Japanese citizens live in poorly insulated condominiums incongruously called “mansions.”
In four cities dubbed “Smart Communities,” Japan is also experimenting with the smart grid, which attempts to predict and respond to demand, supply, and storage of electricity, encouraging off-peak usage and conservation. The smart grid concept makes great sense, but it should not be used to promote all-electric homes, and the piecemeal Smart Community approach isn’t going to address the urgent problems facing Japan, its homes, or its electrical usage.
Travel, Community, and Tramlines
The automotive industry is in the throes of converting to electric cars, and I hope they replace gas-guzzlers sooner than later. As more electricity is produced by renewable energy, and car batteries are used to store it, driving will become a more sustainable activity. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the current Japanese lifestyle is sustainable. I agree with Masaaki Naito of the Lake Biwa Environmental Science Research Center. Naito preaches that his countrymen need to rethink their addiction to the automobile, reliance on imported food, and travel to distant lands for relaxation. They need to rediscover traditional community values, local beauty and recreation, and self-sufficiency, while relying more on walking, bicycling, and public transportation.
At this point, readers may be thinking, People in the United States need to do the same thing. Yes, of course! While homes in the United States are, in general, better insulated than in Japan, and we have some innovative renewable energy projects and subsidies, Americans have a long way to go towards switching from fossil fuel and nuclear power to renewable energy sources. Instead, we are fracking for oil and gas and have no national feed-in tariff legislation. But that is another huge subject. I am concentrating on Japan because it is the “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of us.
For my last week in Japan, I moved to Sawanoya Ryokan, a charming inn that specifically caters to foreign visitors, near the Nezu subway stop. It is located in Yanaka, one of the few remaining traditional Japanese neighborhoods in Tokyo, with small bakeries, restaurants, and specialty shops. I could walk the quiet streets and greet families with little children or old people watering their plants. On a Saturday, I walked around a nearby area with dozens of temples and shrines, where I heard the sounds of drums, chants, songs, and prayers. These were not tourist attractions – they were places of community gathering and worship.
I bought Welcome to Sawanoya, Welcome to Japan, by Isao Sawa, 74, the patriarch of the family-run inn. In it, he told the story of the inn’s earlier years. In 1972, Tokyo ripped up the electric tramline that went to nearby Ueno, a major travel hub, thereby nearly killing the inn’s business. Sawa converted part of the building to apartments and went to work in a downtown hotel. Only by switching to a focus on travelers from overseas in 1982 did the inn survive. I hope that Japan’s cities will undo their mistakes of the past. Among other things, they should restore their electric streetcar lines.
Instead, I fear that Japanese leaders and bureaucrats will continue to give lip service to eco-cities and eco-lives, or the new buzz word, smart-communities, smart-services. They will pass nice-sounding legislation without real teeth or sufficient budgets. But there may be no systemic change until another crisis precipitates drastic moves to avert disaster. And by that time it may be too late.
Still, Japan may be tipping in the right direction, with the passage of feed-in tariff (FIT) legislation for renewable energy, to take effect on July 1, 2012. Sharp Corporation President Mikio Katayama, the current chairman of the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association, praised the new legislation, saying that it would “strengthen the competitiveness of the Japanese solar power industry and jump-start regional industries and job creation.” Already, Mitsui and Toshiba have announced plans to build a huge 50 megawatt solar panel array in Aichi Prefecture by 2013.
But as Naomi Fink, a Japan strategist for Jefferies & Company, a global securities and investment banking group, observed, “Though symbolically ground-breaking, there remain some unanswered questions regarding cost, surrounding infrastructure and regulation.” Hirofumi Kawachi, a senior analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities, was more blunt: “The bills are half-baked. The investment plan is there but financing is lacking – there is no detailed roadmap to finance infrastructure investments needed to make the scheme work, such as setting up proper transmission networks.”
Kawachi’s last point is crucial. Even with the new law, much remains undone. The electric utility monopolies still exist, and it is unclear how they will accommodate a large influx of variable renewable energy. Without reform legislation aimed at the utilities – such as making the grid a public asset, and money spent on improved transmission lines – it is unlikely that renewable energy made in remote rural areas will find its way to major population centers. The new law has a loophole that could scuttle its impact, since the utilities can reject renewable energy that hinders a “smooth supply” of electrons.
The salvation of Japan may lie with wealthy businessmen like Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, who has pledged that Softbank will spend $1 billion to build 10 massive solar PV panel installations in Japan. Softbank may thus add 30 gigawatts of renewable energy to the grid by itself, which equals the target of the new FIT legislation for the next ten years.
Nonetheless, the situation for specific renewables remains dire. Geothermal is still banned from national parks, and onsen owners resist nearby plants. Geo-heat remains a fledgling hardly out of the nest. Wind turbines still must face tsunamis and typhoons, while they are still perceived as health threats and bird hazards. Solar hot water endures as an underused, reliable technology because of its poor image. The majority of Japan’s waste food (most of it imported) is still incinerated instead of recycled into feed, compost, or energy, and the wood pellet factories continue to use thinned cedar trees to make energy-wasteful, unprofitable bits of compressed sawdust. There are still no programs or building codes to promote well-insulated homes with traditional features. The smart grid remains a field test in only four cities, and the Future-Model Cities, not yet named, are quite likely to provide more puffery than substance.
But for the sake of Japan and the world, I hope my skepticism proves to be unwarranted.
Mark Pendergrast is the author of Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (which was featured in the ScienceBlogs Book Club) and several other books, including, most recently, Japan’s Tipping Point. Email and book information is available at his website.