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Too much clean energy? (2)

October 4, 2014


EDITORIAL: Measures needed to prevent renewable energy boom from going bust



The positive growth of electricity production using renewable energy powered by the feed-in-tariff (FIT) system is beginning to show signs of losing steam.

Major power utilities are suspending the acceptance of new entries into the FIT program because the capacity of their transmission lines to take additional electricity has reached its limit in some areas. Of the 10 big utilities that are legally required to purchase all power generated from renewable energy sources at fixed prices, five, including Kyushu Electric Power Co., have stopped making new FIT contracts in almost all the areas they serve.

This inability by utilities to accept all the electricity produced under the FIT program due to capacity deficiency reflects the strong investment interest in renewable energy and the high expectations for the use of green power.

But solar and wind power has one big drawback. The amount of electricity generated with these energy sources tends to fluctuate wildly due to factors such as weather conditions, time of day and the season.

Such fluctuations in power generation, unless they are properly adjusted, can affect the frequency and voltage of the power, causing power failures and malfunctioning equipment.

One solution is to expand transmission lines for integrated operations to wider areas so that the effects of the fluctuations in power generation can be buffered more easily.

Thicker power lines between utilities will allow for the transmission of surplus power generated from renewable energy sources in one area, say Kyushu, to other areas where there is demand.

Decisions on investing in power grids in the past had been left up to the individual utilities.

The situation, however, will change when the scheduled power market reform separates the operation of transmission lines from the business of power generation. This will encourage investment in transmission grids based on a broader perspective that is not restricted by the needs of the individual utilities.

Starting in April next year, a new operational entity will take charge of integrating the transmission lines operated by regional power companies. The new body will be responsible for developing trunk transmission lines and connecting lines between utilities.

This new system will make it easier to expand and enhance transmission grids in response to policy needs and requests from power generation companies.

Some issues remain to be sorted out, such as how the costs should be shared. But it is vital to carry through such power system reforms without delay.

It will take time, however, to build up a large network of transmission lines covering wide areas. There are also problems that need to be solved, including the insufficient capacity of transmission lines at locations where they are connected to power plants.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will set up a working group to study the formula for calculating the maximum amount of green electricity individual utilities can accept, as well as conditions for such acceptance.

The ministry should consider taking steps to ensure early, preferably ahead-of-schedule, implementation of plans to bolster transformers and storage batteries, instead of leaving utilities to decide when to take these measures.

As for large-scale solar farms, which account for the majority of applications for power sales under the FIT program, the ministry may need to ensure the appropriate scale by using the price mechanism. It can do so, for instance, by reviewing the purchase prices more frequently than the current once a year.

Promoting the use of renewable energy is a global trend. It is important from the viewpoint of developing alternative energy sources that can replace nuclear power and fossil fuels and of tackling global warming.

In its new basic energy supply plan, the government designated about three years from 2013 as a period for “maximum possible acceleration” in the effort to spread the use of renewable energy. It has set a target of increasing the share of clean power as part of the nation’s overall electricity production to more than 20 percent by 2030.

The government should figure out ways to prevent the current renewable energy boom from going bust.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 4

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