Editorial meti’s new energy agenda is still powered by old thinking:the asahi shimbun electricity cost per watt

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In the world, radical structural changes are beginning to occur in energy supply and consumption. One important and growing trend is “decarbonization” of the energy mix, which means replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Another is dispersed power generation, or widespread use of small-scale power-generation facilities combined with storage batteries and other necessary equipment for more efficient production and consumption of electricity. These trends will have far-reaching effects on society.

The draft energy plan raises some serious questions and concerns about the government’s vision for the energy future of the nation. If it adheres to the traditional energy policy, can the government make effective responses to the powerful, transformative changes occurring in the energy sector? Will this stance not cause Japan to fall behind key energy policy trends in the world?

The Paris climate accord to stem global warming has been negotiated and put into effect, creating strong headwinds for coal-burning thermal power generation, which emits large amounts of greenhouse gasses. The costs of nuclear power generation have risen sharply mainly because of tighter safety standards introduced in many countries following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. As a result, production of electricity using atomic energy has been on the wane, especially in industrial nations.

Businesses have responded quickly to the changes. Business investment and technology development efforts in the sector have been focused mostly on such areas as renewable energy development, control on power transmission and consumption and power storage, creating huge new markets. Japan has been lagging behind these new trends.

The targets are based on the assumption that nuclear power generation and renewable energy will account for around 20 percent each of Japan’s overall power production in fiscal 2030. Under the plan, about 30 nuclear reactors will be running then, far more than the number of offline reactors that have been restarted so far, eight.

As for atomic energy, the key issue, the draft contains two key principles–promoting reactor restarts to maintain nuclear power generation as the core power source and “lowering the nation’s dependence (on nuclear power) as much as possible.”

In reality, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has been pressing ahead with plans to bring offline reactors back on stream. The proposed new policy would allow the administration to continue pushing the nation gradually back to heavy dependence on nuclear power and making stopgap responses concerning the sticky issue of disposal of radioactive waste and the troubled nuclear fuel recycling program.

The ministry has remained skeptical about the viability of renewable power generation, which is in the process of evolution, while assigning a major role to both nuclear power and coal thermal generation despite the raft of problems plaguing them. This stance seems to be a sign of inertia and inability to make gutsy decisions of the organization.

The government has a duty to present a viable future vision for the nation’s energy supply system, which is part of vital infrastructure for social activities and people’s lives, and chart a course toward that vision. Then it needs to thrash out concrete policy measures to realize the vision.