Japan Looking To Replace Lost Nuclear Power With Fossil Fuels

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In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan shut down a good deal of its nuclear reactors — and it looks like coal may be replacing them.

Before the 2011 accident, in which a tidal wave caused three of the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to go into meltdown, Japan only got 62 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels. Nuclear power made up the vast majority of the rest.

Since then, environmentalists’ hopes that the Japanese government would use the incident as an opportunity to move to renewables have not panned out. According to Bloomberg, coal and liquified natural gas rose in fiscal year 2012 to make up 90 percent of Japan’s electricity generation. And on April 11, the Japanese cabinet approved a new energy plan that designates coal as an important long-term energy source, giving it the same prominence as nuclear in Japan’s energy strategy. The new plan sets no specific goals for electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal.

“You cannot exclude coal when you think about the best energy mix for Japan to keep energy costs stable,” Naoya Domoto, the president of energy and plant operations at coal energy technology developer IHI Corp., told Bloomberg. “One way to do that is to use coal efficiently.”

Japan’s coal consumption jumped 19.3 percent to 59.93 million metric tons in the country’s fiscal year for 2013, which just ended in March. Liquified natural gas, the other big component of the country’s new energy mix, only rose 0.5 percent to hit 56.09 million metric tons.

There is some good news from a climate perspective, however. Coal and liquified natural gas only made up about half the lost nuclear power. The need for the remaining power was actually eliminated by a domestic campaign — called “setsuden” (power saving) — to ramp up energy conservation and efficiency. By encouraging companies and individuals to allow slightly higher temperatures in homes and offices, pushing more flexible dress codes at businesses to accommodate the increases, thinning interior lighting, reducing exterior lighting, and shutting down big screens, Japan was able to cut some of its demand for electricity rather than merely bulk up new supplies to replace the lost nuclear power.

Bloomberg also reported that Japanese officials hope the increase in coal burning will give the country the chance to demonstrate technologies that allow coal to be burned more cleanly and efficiently. Japan’s Nakoso Power Station was originally set up as a testing ground for integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), a methodology that turns coal into gas to be burned, removing impurities and lowering carbon emissions in the process. Once the Fukushima disaster began driving a shutdown in nuclear power, the plant and its 250 megawatt capacity was fully commercialized.

The Japanese hope is that such technologies could then be exported to places like the United States, where cleaner and more efficient technologies could help new and existing coal plants stay under the carbon emission rate targets the federal government is setting up.

Those exports could at least help mitigate another problem Japan’s increased fossil fuel use is causing: a trade deficit. The country is poor in natural resources, so coal and natural gas have to imported. As a result, at this point, Japan has run 20 consecutive months of trade deficits. That means 20 straight months of Japanese dollars leaving the country and being spent abroad, which means a decrease in domestic demand. Countries usually have to plug the hole caused by trade deficits with increased borrowing by individuals, businesses, and the government.

Of course, if cutting the trade deficit is the goal, Japan could also reduce its fossil fuel consumption by taking advantage of the country’s considerable potential for renewable energy generation.