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Renewables too important to be left to utilities

Editorial: Gov't must not leave promotion of renewable energy to private utilities


A dark shadow has been cast on efforts to spread the use of renewable energy.

Major power companies are suspending new applications for access to the power grid from solar- and wind-power suppliers through the feed-in tariff (FIT) system, because supply has soared at a rate that exceeds the capacity of utilities' transmission lines.

To accelerate the spread of power generated from renewable energy sources, the government must take responsibility for expanding the capacities of utilities to take on energy.

Over 10 million kilowatts of electricity is generated from renewable sources in Japan, and when combined with facilities that already have FIT contracts, the total comes out to over 70 million kilowatts. If all such generators were put into operation, the government's goal, as stated in its basic energy plan, to produce over 20 percent of energy through renewable sources in 2030, would be fulfilled.

Under current circumstances, however, such an accomplishment may become just a pie in the sky. The Kyushu, Hokkaido, Tohoku, Shikoku and Okinawa electric power companies have announced that they are temporarily suspending new entries into the FIT system.

The fixed prices at which utilities are required to purchase renewable energy are re-evaluated every April. In March, shortly before that re-evaluation took place, there was a rush of applications from renewable energy producers hoping to sell power -- primarily solar -- at high prices, before prices dropped. As a result, the supply of energy with certification from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) exceeded the peak demand of the aforementioned five utilities. That means that even if the power companies stopped all of their power generators, there would still be surplus energy if all the renewable power generators were in operation.

Disruption in the balance between energy supply and demand can put excess strain on the power grid, potentially causing large-scale power outages. The utilities say they will spend several months assessing the capacity of their transmission grids in accepting renewable power. We urge them to make the utmost effort to accept as much clean energy as possible, instead of rejecting it because of supply fluctuations.

METI plans to set up a panel of experts to verify the capacities of the five companies' transmission lines. This process is necessary, but that work alone will not solve the fundamental problem of utilities being unable to accept electricity that exceeds peak demand.

Renewable energy farms are mostly located far away from cities, where land is cheap. The current situation of surplus energy could have been predicted when the FIT system was first adopted. The system's design must promptly be reworked.

To expand renewable energy, efforts must be made to strengthen transmission grids across utilities, and allow the buying and selling of power across regions. However, this will cost several trillion yen. At a time when there is no clear vision for the future of energy in Japan, it is too heavy a burden for private power companies to shoulder by themselves. Assistance from the government is indispensable.

Assuming that Japan will continue to use nuclear power, the government estimates that a nuclear fuel cycle program will cost close to 20 trillion yen. At the same time, the expansion of renewable energy projects is essential if we are to reduce our dependence on nuclear energy. Our limited funds should be diverted to the latter.

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