Japan Turns to Coal, Demonstrates Inadequacy of Renewable Energy

by William Yeatman on March 31, 2014

in Blog

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Nearly three years ago, in the immediate wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the Washington Post published a dispatch from its Tokyo correspondent Chico Harlan, reporting that Japan had turned to renewables:

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…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…”

I made light of the report, in particular the part about how the Prime Minister’s plan was based on an “as-yet-to-be-determined” innovation, which struck me as wishful thinking. At the time—May 29th, 2011, to be exact—I predicted that reality would intervene, and Japan would turn to coal to replace nuclear, because intermittent renewable energy simply cannot function as a base load power source. To be precise, I wrote,

When Japan starts building large plants, my bet is that they’ll be coal powered.

Nearly three years later, it’s come to pass. Below is the lede to an article from Friday morning’s Wall Street Journal

Japan is turning into a rare bright spot in the world coal market, stepping up coal-fired power generation to replace nuclear plants that went offline after the 2011 Fukushima accident.

Japan’s embrace of “dirty” coal, climate change notwithstanding, is a bow to reality. As I explained three years ago, renewables simply aren’t up to the challenge:

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. Base load 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 [mechanically] and can be dispatched fast. Renewable energy, like wind and solar, is unreliable, so it’s good for nothing.

I was being cheeky when I said green energy is “good for nothing”; in fact, wind and solar power do produce energy, however inefficiently, and this energy does have value. Nonetheless, it’s true that wind and solar have next-to-no applicability as a base load source, due to the simple fact that a base load source MUST be highly reliable, which, again, is inherently untrue of wind and solar. To be sure, it’s possible we’ll have a breakthrough in battery technology. But we’re nowhere near that now, evidently, and until energy storage is commercialized, it remains true that renewable energy can’t replace conventional energy sources for base load. Because of this reality, Japan turned to coal.

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