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If not nuclear, then what?

September 23, 2011

London: Last night I was at the Japanese Embassy on Piccadilly for an interesting seminar on climate and energy in post-crisis Japan. I say ‘interesting’, and it was, but this is very much despite it falling foul of my two biggest conference irritations: the 5-member panel was made up entirely of men; and it had speakers whose oratory style consisted of mumbling their power point slides word by dreary word… Nevertheless, the talks about how Japan and the UK will make the move to a decarbonised, secure and affordable energy system raised some interesting points. Japan is having to entirely rethink its plans for the next 20 years and beyond, because nuclear, which was supposed to be producing more than half of the country’s supply by 2030 (compared to 26% pre-Fukushima), with 14 new atomic stations planned, is now off the cards, and nobody knows whether it will be on them again. Meanwhile, Japan still wants to fulfil its commitment to reducing its emissions by 30% – something that from the one day to the next, from 10-11 March, became an entirely different and more uncertain task.

Perhaps the most encouraging note to come out of the talks was the fact that despite a very hot sticky summer, during which 43 out of 54 nuclear stations were out of use, with a corresponding slump in power production, Japan did not suffer a crushing powerdown. In fact, domestic and business efficiency measures rocketed. A general awareness of energy use was fostered with a social responsibility towards saving the nation’s electricity resource. And all in a matter of weeks.

For me, the most interesting talk – if not the best delivered – was by a guy from Mitsubishi, called Naoki Iwabuchi, who has been involved in managing the company’s global power generation facilities – a not insubstantial 3.6 GW in total (more than the entire production of Scotland, for example) of mostly thermal generation. Mitsubishi aims to produce 20% of its power from renewables over the next couple of decades. What got my attention, though, was the number of problems this huge wealthy corporation was having in meeting this modest aim. Iwabuchi listed at least four major wind projects they were likely to abandon in the coming months, because of mid-project changes to planning permissions or lack of transparency over allocations (renewable projects typically require far more land than thermal); reduction in assured feed-in tariff terms or uncertain market variability on green certificates (the vast upfront capital and time required for data collection (on things like wind speed) and construction for renewable plants coupled with  less certain supply means investment becomes risky without government assured tariffs); being told they have to pay for grid additions (to allow it to accept unstable power) and even new back-up stations. And these were all projects in Europe; the Japanese company won’t touch Japan, where things are apparently even harder. It was quite a revealing talk. Meanwhile, fossil fuels are still being subsidised by governments and received more assistance in their formative years than renewables are now. I almost felt sorry for the guy.

I don’t see Britain renationalising its power companies any time soon, which means governments have got to get behind renewables in a consistent, longterm way to support investment – in the same way that we bend over backwards to help oil, coal and gas.

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