8 Novembre 2014
November 6, 2014
Five utilities including Kyushu Electric Power Co. have suspended signing new contracts to buy power generated with renewable energy, such as solar power and wind power, under a system in which major electricity suppliers are required to buy such power at a fixed price. This is because these firms were not fully prepared to accept renewable energy, highlighting the inadequacy of the government's institutional program.
The government, which is now reviewing the system, should proactively and patiently work on drastic reform of the electric power generation and supply system.
The system was launched in July 2012 largely out of reflection of the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant that broke out in March 2011. The spread of renewable energy is effective in preventing global warming and power generation using such energy sources has a low risk of accidents.
Since businesses that use renewable energy to generate electricity do not have their own power grids, the government requires major power companies to purchase power generated by designated businesses using renewable energy for up to 20 years.
The system is modeled after one in Germany that is an advanced country in terms of the use of renewable energy. However, the five utilities stopped signing new contracts to purchase power generated with renewable energy on the grounds that the amount of such power is likely to exceed their capacity. No wonder the system, which Japan introduced by imitating one in Europe despite power companies not being prepared to accept such power, hit a snag.
To ensure a stable power supply, a demand-supply balance that is perfect must be achieved at all times, according to industry sources. If the supply of power surpasses or dips below demand, it would destabilize the frequency and voltage, which could trigger a power blackout.
However, most renewable energy that utilities are supposed to buy is solar power, which is unstable because the generated amount of such power depends largely on weather conditions. Such being the case, the amount of power could surpass demand on a sunny day, which could cause power outages.
Surplus power should be sold to other utilities that have enough capacity to accept electricity. However, it is technically impossible under the current system. The capacity of power cables connecting power grids owned by different utilities is limited. Therefore, solar power and electricity generated with other renewable energy sources cannot be supplied to these cables in principle because the generating amount cannot be predicted. This is because major power companies have enjoyed regional monopolies and seldom supply surplus power to other firms or receive such electricity from other companies, while the government approved such monopolies.
The service area of Tokyo Electric Power Co. fell seriously short of power following the Fukushima No. 1 plant accident, highlighting the need for power interchange between electric power companies. The government has finally begun to reform the system and set up an organization that will play a leading role in controlling the power interchange next spring. However, the establishment of a broad power interchange system will come later.
A senior official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry admitted that many officials knew that the current system under which power companies are required to buy power generated with renewable energy at a fixed price would be deadlocked sooner or later. Numerous solar power generation companies were set up one after another for the sole purpose of making profits, contributing to the confusion.
Three years have already passed since the law regulating the power purchase system came into force. Nevertheless, the government failed to take any action while being aware of problems with the system, nor did it set a numerical target for expanding the use of renewable energy for power generation. It highlights the irresponsibility of the government while the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is enthusiastic about restarting nuclear power stations.
The Fukushima Prefectural Government, which regards the spread of renewable energy as the pillar of its disaster recovery efforts, has solicited solar power generation companies to set up power stations in the prefecture. Therefore, an official of the prefectural government expressed concern that the five major utilities' suspension of signing new contracts to purchase renewable energy could adversely affect the prefecture's recovery plans.
Japan lags behind many other countries in the introduction of renewable energy. According to the International Energy Agency, the ratio of renewable energy to the total power generation amount is high among European countries -- 20.9 percent in Germany and 26.4 percent in Spain. The figure comes to 6.2 percent in the United States, but in Japan it is a mere 2.2 percent. The ratio has doubled from the pre-nuclear disaster period, but still remains low. Therefore, Japan needs a system under which utilities are required to buy renewable energy at a fixed price.
Japan should learn from European countries' efforts to expand the use of renewable energy. The power grids of European countries are connected with each other by cables with sufficient capacity, allowing these countries to supply surplus electricity generated with renewable energy to others within the region. European countries are introducing a system to predict the amount of power that can be generated with renewable energy based on meteorological observations and a device to automatically limit the amount of power generated with such energy sources if the supply of electricity is likely to reach a surplus.
The costs of establishing such systems pose a challenge. A study group within the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry estimates that it will cost 4 to 6 trillion yen to improve power grids owned by utilities to prevent blackouts if the amount of solar power is increased to 53 million kilowatts -- almost equal to power generated by nuclear plants before the outbreak of the Fukushima crisis -- by 2030. The costs of buying renewable energy are added to utility fees consumers pay. As such, if power grids are reinforced, it will further increase the financial burden on consumers. This is one of the reasons why the government has not reviewed the system under which utilities must buy renewable energy at a fixed price.
However, power companies are expected to spend a combined amount of over 2 trillion yen on safety measures in preparation to reactivate idled nuclear plants. If utilities are prepared to pay such a huge amount of money, they should trim the financial burden of renewable energy on consumers.
In the German electric power system, top priority is placed on the use of renewable energy while thermal power is used to make up for fluctuations in generation amounts at power stations using renewable energy.
In contrast, Japan puts priority on nuclear and thermal power while pushing renewable energy to the sidelines. In reviewing the system, it is necessary to rectify Japan's excessive reliance on solar energy among various renewable energy sources. However, efforts to spread renewable energy sources must not be dampened. The government and the electric power industry should present a total picture of the future of Japan's electric power generation and supply system in which renewable energy will play a key role. (By Masahiro Nakai, Tokyo Economic News Department)
November 06, 2014(Mainichi Japan)