Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Energy in Japan

Let’s start with a good news from Fukushima…After several days in Japan, as I was telling my friend Miyuki Nakagawa this afternoon that I thought the seasonal heat in Tokyo was not as torrid as one year ago, she gave me an interesting explanation: that's because there's less hot air discharged from the city’s buildings as a result of the current restrictions on the use of air conditioning in Japan prompted by the post-Fukushima electricity supply crisis. Of course, why hadn’t I thought of that before? Miyuki says that she even noticed in her neighbourhood that the air cools off every night; she can actually open her bedroom window in the night this year and enjoy some fresh air, whereas in the past she had to switch on the air conditioning to manage to sleep.

I asked Miyuki if the general public had drawn the same lesson (that conventional air conditioning is having a boomerang effect on our well-being), but she wasn’t sure. From the minute you land, at Narita airport and whenever you travel in the metro, you find posters everywhere apologizing for the absence of air conditioning and telling people it's to save energy. Okay, everyone knows that Japanese people have a tendency to apologize for next to anything, but in this instance it would be smart to emphasize the positive side of the air conditioning shutdown.

My friend Jun Hoshikawa, a veteran social and environmental activist and author, told me the other day that there is a fairly widespread suspicion that the negative “you must save energy” messaging is part of a deliberate strategy of pro-nuclear interests. The idea is that, with some 36 nuclear reactors stopped across the country and an unpopular Prime Minister calling for a nuclear-free future and a renewables-based economic vision, tired workers sweating in the metro on their way home hit by “save energy” messages at every step are subliminally being told to blame their problem on the closure of the nuclear power plants, not on the industry’s lack of safety. 

[I've also read in Japan Times yesterday that heatstrokes among elders have quadrupled this summer]

Against this background, what’s the story behind Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s call for nuclear-free Japan last week? Public opinion polls show that approximately 70% of the population are now in favour of closing down all nuclear power in the country. At the same time, Kan is currently enjoying the lowest possible acceptance rate a leader can imagine in his worst nightmares (no more than 12% to 15% of the Japanese voters support him), and he knows that it’s not going to get any better for him (at least not significantly) in the foreseeable future. Kan hasn’t got anything to lose now, and with no or very little prospect of being re-elected (he could even face a mutiny within his own party at any time), the only thing that counts for him is the long term, his mark in History. Thus with his call for the closure of the nuclear industry, not only has Kan nothing to lose,  he’s also got everything to win: if the renewable energy REvolution he’s calling for does take place, he’ll be remembered as the great visionary leader who’s put the country on the right path at a moment of great crisis crisis and sorrow; if the REvolution does not place and the nuclear industry makes a comeback instead, he knows that sooner or later (when there is another nuclear accident, or when the leading economies of the world will be the ones who did their REvolution) people will be sorry for not having listened to him and then again he’ll be remembered as someone with a great vision. Either way, he’ll win. Add to this the fact that Kan is the guy who signs every day the cheques to pay for the many hundred billions of Yens the Fukushima tragedy is costing to ordinary taxpayers and preventing the government from doing the things it was elected to do, and here’s why Prime Minister Kan is turning into an anti-nuclear activist (and others like Angela Merkel too). 

[Remember that the nuclear industry’s liability is limited to ridiculously small amounts, because otherwise no-one would invest in it: the industry collects the benefits for itself but passes the costs to the rest of society.]

The Keidanren, the big and powerful Japanese Business Federation and the mainstream Japanese media are trying to get the Prime Minister out as soon as they can. For now, Kan is trying to resist, at least until the Diet meets in session again at the end of August with three important bills on the table: two bills on Fukushima recovery, and a new bill on Renewables feeding tariffs to speed up the clean energy REvolution. Despite the odds, the Prime Minister isn’t alone. The richest man in Japan for example,  Masayshi  Son,  a Japanese telecom tycoon CEO of Softbank, very popular all over the country for representing the archetype of successful self-made entrepreneur Japanese people love, has started to bid for the renewable energy REvolution. Masayoshi Son and Softbank are now conducting large humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the Fukushima area, especially for children, including 10 Billion Yens in donations to the victims and local NGOs. Son is developing his new renewables business line fast, and is gathering political support for it: apart from the Prime Minister, out of the 47 prefectures (Japanese local governments), he’s already got the support of 35 prefectures for Softbank’s new renewables projects consisting in developing “mega-solar projects” and wind parks in unused or underused lands and a smart grid electricity transmission and distribution system.

The recent Global Renewables Status Report of REN21, the global renewable energy policy network, shows how well REvolution is underway now. In 2010, renewable energy supplied an estimated 16% of global final energy consumption and delivered close to 20% of global electricity; renewable capacity now comprises about a quarter of total global power-generating capacity. And if the Japanese want to take a lead, with their great creativity and engineering skills, things will speed up even faster.