JAPAN | Son’s quest for sun, wind has nuclear interests wary

Posted on July 12, 2011


JAPAN | JAPAN TIMES | 12 July 2011

In late March, while engaging in volunteer work and making efforts to restore telecommunications networks in the quake-stricken Tohoku region, Softbank Corp. founder and Chairman Masayoshi Son met with evacuees from the area surrounding the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

News photo
High energy: Softbank Corp. President Masayoshi Son speaks during a press conference in Osaka on May 26, announcing his intention to set up a subsidiary to build renewable energy power plants in Japan. KYODO PHOTO

Days later, he returned to Tokyo and declared pursuit of a new energy policy, one emphasizing renewable sources, such as solar, wind and thermal energy, was needed.

In April, Son announced he would personally donate ¥1 billion to establish a foundation for that purpose.

The amount he’s committing, and the political support he has received from local and national leaders, have sparked a national debate on the future of nuclear power versus renewable, and put the atomic power lobby on the defensive.

Why is a man whose business is telecommunications-related embracing renewable energy?

Son’s experience in disaster relief in the aftermath of March 11 provided the immediate motive for his decision, but he said he had been thinking about the pursuit of renewable energy sources for a few years.

The nation’s utilities, he said, operate as virtual monopolies, especially Tokyo Electric Power Co., prompting him to probe why the nation relies so heavily on nuclear power and gives so little thought to renewable energies.

This was when he came to the realization that the pronuclear elements in the government and utilities had a profound influence on the nation’s economic, social and political structure.

Son made a name for himself when Softbank entered the telecommunications business, helping to bring about the end of NTT Corp.’s effective monopoly and triggering intense competition.

Is Son advocating that all nuclear plants be shut down until renewable energy sources replace them?

No. During an April 20 appearance at a Lower House committee for recovery and reconstruction, Son told Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers that nuclear plants should be decommissioned when they’ve been operating for 40 years, the maximum lifespan for most such facilities, and then be replaced by new energy sources.

Three of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors have been operating for 40 years, and, by 2020, another 15 will be 40 years or older.

So what’s Son’s plan?

His goal is to encourage local governments to shift to renewable energy sources and to provide land for mega-solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal, small hydropower generators, and other renewable energy forms.

Investment would come from Son’s fund as well as other public and private sources.

The key to success is participation by prefectures, which would share the financial benefits of having solar and wind farms, and other natural energy sources located on their land.

But the challenge is the scarcity of available and viable land.

Is it possible to build installations such as mega-solar panel farms, which require abundant space?

Many prefectures have land that is currently either underutilized or not being used at all.

For example, garbage landfills, land prefectures set aside for public works projects that didn’t happen, and idle farmland the owners still pay taxes for, could host solar panel farms. In addition, lagoons, cliffs and salt flats could host wind turbines.

Son calculates that 1 hectare of unused farmland could be the site of mega-solar panels providing 500 kw.

So what’s the ultimate goal?

Son hopes to raise the amount of electricity generated by renewables to 20 percent by 2020.

This would include 100 million kw of solar energy and 50 million kw of other renewable energies.

In May, Prime Minister Naoto Kan set a similar goal, saying Japan would increase the ratio of power generation using renewable natural energy sources to 20 percent by the early 2020s.

Geothermal, in addition to solar and wind, Son believes, has great potential for development, given that Japan has geothermal power sources equivalent to 20 nuclear plants.

But aren’t renewables more expensive than fossil fuels and nuclear power?

According to the government’s 2010 Energy White Paper, the cost per kilowatt hour was ¥49 for solar, ¥10 to ¥14 for wind, and ¥5 to ¥6 for nuclear power.

However, the calculation for nuclear power does not include reprocessing costs for nuclear fuel or insurance liability in the event of accident damages that taxpayers would likely be obliged to bear in some form. Tepco faces trillions of yen in damages and decades of decontamination of soil, water, air and sea.

Son estimates that if these additional costs are included, the actual cost of nuclear power per kilowatt hour rises to about the same cost as wind power.

The question is really about what the cost structure of renewables versus nuclear will look like in the future.

As it takes a minimum of 10 years to build a nuclear plant, and given that the cost of solar power in other countries like the United States continues to fall thanks to ever more efficient solar panels, Son is betting that, by 2020, renewable energy technology will have developed to the point where it is extremely cost-competitive on a per kilowatt hour basis compared with nuclear power. And renewable energy would not have the social and environmental problems of nuclear power.

How has Son’s plan been received?

The plan has drawn excitement and strong support from local governments, environmentalists and businesses involved in renewable technologies, as well as from Kan.

On the other hand, the plan has drawn a wary and cautious reaction from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the utilities, and the “nuclear village” of pronuclear bureaucrats, academics and media.

As of early July, some 35 prefectural governors told Son they wanted to participate in his plan, including the governors of Fukui and Fukushima prefectures, home to nearly half of Japan’s 54 reactors.

On Wednesday, a new organization to discuss how to reach this goal will be established, with Son as an integral player.

But the pronuclear METI and the utilities have voiced caution.

A METI committee looking at the issue said in April that its members estimated the costs for renewable energy at between ¥15 and ¥20 per kwh, well above the cost of nuclear, oil and natural gas.

Both Tepco and Kansai Electric Power Co. have said it is critical for Japan to employ a strategy that offers the best energy mix, one that offers a safe and stable electricity supply and does not burden consumers or businesses with undue costs.

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