JAPAN | EDITORIAL/ Seeking a society without nuclear power generation: Let consumers regain leadership in developing energy policy

Posted on July 19, 2011

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JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | 19 July 2011

This is the last of a five-part editorial series proposing ways for Japan to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear power generation for its energy supply.

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Two key factors for producing necessary electricity while reducing our reliance on nuclear power are “distributed generation” and “the separation of generation and transmission.”

For decades, Japan has been building giant nuclear power plants near the seashore that send electricity over long distances to large cities that consume huge amounts of power.

The disastrous accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has dramatically demonstrated that such centralized power generation, which was promoted as the best approach to ensuring a stable power supply, could cause widespread power disruptions and enormous economic damage when a major disaster takes place.

To create a power supply system less vulnerable to disasters and crises, it would be better to use distributed power sources with the help of independent local power generators instead of depending solely on existing regional utilities.

It would also help to expand the use of technologies, such as photovoltaics, to generate more power in small quantities close to where it is needed.

Establishing a decentralized electricity generation system requires allowing various independent power suppliers to connect their facilities to the power grid on fair terms.

Since 1995, Japan has been taking steps to liberalize power generation and throw its retail electricity market open to competition. But the proposed separation of power generation and transmission has been on ice because of strong opposition from electric power companies.

The existing large power utilities have been restricting connections to their networks of high-voltage transmission lines under the pretext of ensuring stable power supply. The fees charged on newly arrived independent power producers for using transmission lines are so high that they discourage new entries into the business.

As a result, as of April, there were only 32 newcomers in the nation’s electricity retail market, accounting for a puny 3 to 4 percent of the total power supply.

We now need to find viable alternatives to nuclear power. It is clearly necessary to make greater use of alternative power sources, such as renewable energy, small gas-powered turbines and surplus power from independent generators installed by companies and rooftop solar panels at households.

To promote such dispersed generation, transmission services should be separated from the production of electric power to ensure fairer operations.

That would increase competition among power generators and retailers, thereby helping to keep down electricity bills.

As a negative result of the virtual monopoly of regional power markets by big utilities, however, their transmission line networks are separated and not effectively interconnected with each other.

In addition, two different power frequencies have been used in this small country–50 hertz for eastern Japan and 60 hertz for western Japan–under an internationally unique policy that doesn’t make any sense.

Since electricity cannot be stored in large quantities, it is necessary to adjust output constantly to fluctuating demand.

This is a big challenge especially when dealing with alternative energy sources, which are susceptible to weather conditions. Since the possible locations for power generation using renewable sources are limited, it is also difficult to match supply with demand within an area served by an existing utility.

Expanding the scope of transmission operations to cover wider areas would increase options for supply-demand adjustments and make it easier to tap renewables. This would create a new power supply system based on a combination of dispersed generation and wide-area transmission.

While it may be impossible to immediately create a fully integrated national grid that allows electricity to flow freely from anywhere in the country to anywhere else, it would be possible and beneficial to integrate the operations of the networks of transmission lines first in eastern Japan, which was directly hit by the March 11 disaster.

Utilities argue that since transmission services would not generate much profit, separating them from power generation would lead to reduced investment in transmission lines and thereby increase the risk of accidents.

But this problem could be solved by designing the system cleverly so that fees for using transmission lines will be reasonably based on the necessary costs. Information about the costs should be fully disclosed for transparency.

In Europe and the United States, power generation and transmission are already managed and operated under separate systems or by different companies.

Especially in Europe, efforts toward wider transmission have resulted in benefits like stimulating new investment and nurturing power interchange businesses.

There are, however, many challenges to overcome before such a system can be created.

It must now be assumed that more power consumers in Japan will generate electricity on their own or supply power to each other in a limited scale.

But the existing transmission lines are designed for one-way flows of electricity from large power plants to consumers.

The proposed policy change would require building a smart grid based on new technology that can handle flows of electricity in the opposite direction without affecting the voltage or frequency.

Another key issue for debate on the idea is who should be in charge of operating the grid. Should it be the government, or one company devoted to the task? Or some other organization like an association of power consumers?

The establishment of a new regulatory and supervisory body for promoting power interchange among generators and ensuring fair connections to the grid should also be considered.

These reforms cannot be carried out overnight. In Japan’s progress toward a new power supply system, one area where efforts will produce immediate results is demand-side reform for energy and power conservation.

A crucial factor here is how households use electricity. The share of households in the nation’s overall demand for electricity has been rising steadily in the postwar era and now stands at one-third.

When it is necessary to curb power consumption during peak demand hours, as in the current power crunch, efforts by households to cut their power use are vital.

It is urgent to introduce smart meters–electrical meters that track and show how much power is used by which electric appliances in what hours of the day.

Sharing such information with power suppliers would make it possible to set different electricity rates for different hours and power sources and thereby increase the use of home electric appliances in hours when demand and prices are lower.

With its sophisticated technologies for information and communication devices and electronic equipment, Japan has the potential to pursue world-leading projects for smart use of power.

Given the costs of dealing with the nuclear disaster, rising raw materials prices and the planned introduction of a feed-in tariff program to mandate utilities to buy electricity from renewable sources at fixed prices, electricity bills are likely to trend up for the time being.

It is time for Japan to adopt a coherent strategy for smarter and more efficient use of electricity, with conservation as its centerpiece, as a way to reduce the burden on households and the economy as a whole.

We need to break with the longstanding habit of using electricity as much as we want while depending totally on the regional utilities for power supply.

The power supply reforms to reduce the nation’s dependence on nuclear power and replace the centralized generation approach with a decentralized system based on distributed energy facilities would mean a shift from a society dependent on a limited number of power suppliers to a self-sustaining one. Every member of society would be involved in the pursuit of the best ways to produce, distribute and consume power.

In other words, this will be a process for consumers to regain leadership in the development of the energy policy.

In such a society, consumers will examine the costs and risks involved in various power generation methods, select power sources on their own and shoulder the burden of necessary costs. This is an evolutionary path for democracy.

These reforms would lead to new lifestyles, new jobs and new ways of working.

It is time for us to take the step in a new direction instead of fearing change.

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Posted in: JAPAN