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Green power: Review the power system

October 23, 2014

Planting a green power grid


The sudden decisions by five power companies to stop purchasing electricity from renewable energy sources under a feed-in-tariff (FIT) system have forced the government to start reviewing the system itself.

The review will include possibly introducing a tender system for green power-generating entities hoping to sell electricity to power firms and increasing the weight of wind and geothermal power in the purchase of green power.

But the government should not forget a more important thing than tinkering with the FIT system — improving the power grid and the related technological basis so that the share of green electricity will greatly increase in Japan’s total power output. It also must not use the planned restart of nuclear power plants as an excuse to put a brake on the growth of renewable energy sources.

Backed by a call for greater use of green energy in the wake of the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the then Democratic Party of Japan administration introduced the FIT system in July 2012. The nation’s major power companies are required by law to buy, in principle, all the electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal and medium-to-small-scale hydro-power sources and biomass at fixed prices. But Okinawa Electric Power Co. stopped feed-in purchases in August and last month regional power monopolies in Kyushu, Shikoku, Tohoku and Hokkaido announced they will suspend the purchase of green electricity — a course of action made possible by a clause in the FIT law that exempts the power firms from the duty to buy green electricity if the purchase of such power poses a danger to stable supply of electricity.

Behind their move is a rush of last-minute applications by green energy-generating entities to sell electricity to the power companies before the government lowered purchase prices on April 1. As of the end of June, solar power accounted for 96 percent of green electricity approved for future sale to power companies. The power companies argue that they had to stop accepting the applications because either the anticipated oversupply of green electricity to their power grids could lead to the stoppage of their generators or wide fluctuations in the output of solar and wind power due to weather changes will make adjusting their generators extremely difficult. Both cases, it is feared, could lead to blackouts.

The power companies have failed to provide detailed information to back up their arguments. For example, they have not disclosed how much electricity their power transmission lines can send to, or receive from, other power companies; to what extent their power plants — such as thermal power plants using natural gas whose outputs are easily adjustable — can cope with fluctuations of green supplies; and how much excess electricity supplied from renewable sources could be used by pump-storage hydroelectric plants to pump up water during the day to generate power at night.

It is imperative that the power companies make public these figures and other relevant information. This will enable experts and ordinary citizens alike to determine whether the power companies are making sufficient efforts to buy electricity from renewable sources. Only then can there be a discussion of what concrete steps should be taken, including how much to increase the capacity of transmission lines and the specifications for developing more efficient batteries.

Increasing competition in the transmission and distribution of electricity will also help increase the capacity to handle green electricity supplies. The government should speed up the process of separating power transmission and distribution sections from the major power companies, originally scheduled for 2018 or later, and consider the merits of completely shielding new transmission and distribution entities from the control of power companies.

Green electricity, except large-scale hydraulic power, accounted for a mere 2.2 percent of total electricity generated in Japan in 2013. This volume is too small. Given the inherent risks involved in nuclear power generation and the ethical and environmental problems that semi-permanent storage of high-level nuclear waste will cause for future generations, it is logical that Japan should make concrete efforts to greatly increase the percentage of green energy by setting a clearly defined goals while aiming eventually for ending reliance on nuclear power.

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