In addition to being a humanitarian and ecological disaster, the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis also spawned an energy crunch. A significant amount of supply, the equivalent of 9 average-sized American coal power plants, was lost. The 6 light water reactors at the plant had been an important source of power for Tokyo.
More generally, the Japanese people are likely to have second thoughts about nuclear energy. Japan is a global leader in atomic power because it has almost no natural resources, so it has to import almost all of its raw materials. As such, nuclear is much less inimical to a trade balance that other forms of energy. But considering the 2 precedents to Fukushima (Three Mile Island and Chernobyl), it’s a safe bet that nuclear will play a much smaller role in the nation’s energy mix for a generation or longer.
In the wake of the tragedy, I presumed coal would be Japan’s alternative to nuclear. Indeed, it’s the only logical alternative. Coal, nuclear, and hydropower are the three forms of electricity best suited for “base-load”* electricity generation. As Japan’s capacity for large scale hydro is largely tapped, it makes sense that any move away from nuclear would be a move toward coal. Almost as important is the fact that coal is much cheaper to import than liquefied natural gas, the only plausible alternative to generation from nuclear, coal, or hydro. Finally, American coal producers are being chased out of this country by the President’s war on energy, so they are building the infrastructure to export to growing Asian demand centers. All the facts seemed to suggest that Japan would make the move to coal.
But, according to the Washington Post, Japanese officials have a different energy source in mind: magic. In “Japan Taking a Shine to Renewable Energy,” Tokyo correspondent Chico Harlan reports,
“In the now-abandoned town of Futuba, inside the 12-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a sign that arches over the entrance to a main street reads: “Nuclear power is the energy of a bright tomorrow.”
But today, as workers continue their struggle to contain radioactive leakage at the plant, resource-poor Japan has been forced to scale back that commitment to nuclear power and is scrambling to find alternatives. A new energy policy, which Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan began to outline this week, would emphasize solar and wind power and require pricey investment and yet-to-be-determined innovation.
Excuse me? That last part of the post-nuclear plan, the “yet-be-determined-innovation,” seems pretty thin. Evidently, it entails a solar moon shot,
Although the prime minister has set new [and ultra-aggressive renewable] energy targets, he has yet to give specifics of how those goals will be reached — particularly how Japan will drastically reduce the price of solar energy. According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, solar power has a generation cost of 60 cents per kilowatt-hour, while nuclear power costs 6 to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour. If Japan is to reach its target price reduction, solar power by 2030 will cost roughly 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Obviously, that’s not a real plan. It is essentially what California has been banking on since the first time Jerry Brown was Governor, and it’s why electricity generation in the Golden State is a basket case.
Finally, reality hits in the very last paragraph:
But with its supply of renewable energy as yet undeveloped, Japan is turning in the interim to fossil fuels. The Institute of Energy Economics estimates that Japan this year will need to import an extra 110,000 to 140,000 barrels of oil per day, an increase of 3 to 4 percent from the usual amount. A parallel increase of about 10 percent is forecast for imports of liquefied natural gas.
I am sticking to my prediction that Japan will turn to coal. The increased imports of oil and natural gas are due to the fact that many small, marginal oil and gas power plants in the North have been called into action to compensate for the generation lost in the disaster. When Japan starts building large plants, my bet is that they’ll be coal powered.
*[Electricity generation, generally speaking, falls into two categories: Base-load generation and peak generation. Basically, there’s a relatively stable “base”-line demand for electricity throughout the day, which is supplied by “base load” generation. From 4-6PM, when most people come home from work and turn on their air conditioners, televisions, and laptops, there is a spike, or “peak,” in electricity demand. Baseload generation is met at the lowest cost by large power plants running at a high efficiency, like coal, nuclear, and hydro. Peak power is best supplied by natural gas power plants that can be ramped up and down most quickly and efficiently, although hydro is good for this, too, because the energy is stored and can be dispatched fast. Renewable energy, like wind and solar, is unreliable, so it’s good for nothing.]