Why Japan's Shift Away from Nuclear Is Good for Business

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A worker walks near solar panels manufactured by Sharp at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s mega-solar-power station in Osaka, Japan, on Oct. 5, 2010

7-Eleven may seem like just another overly lit, electricity-burning chain store wasting this island nation's precious energy resources. But in fact, it is among a host of forward-looking companies seeking to help set the pace for change in Japan's energy policy. With more than 13,000 locations nationwide, the chain plans to spend over $123 million to switch to energy-efficient LED lighting at about 6,000 outlets in Tokyo, and will install solar panels on the roofs of 1,000 stores across the country over the next few months. The plan will not only save 125 kW a day per store, but also benefit manufacturers of LED lighting and solar-cell panels — a win-win for all.

Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant accident, the world's second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl, has left a gaping hole in — and perhaps a new opportunity for — Japan's energy policy. At a press conference last week, Prime Minister Naoto Kan effectively scrapped Japan's plan for increasing domestic electricity supply. "Under the current energy policy, by the year 2030, more than 50% of Japan's electricity will come from nuclear power generation and 20% from renewable energy sources," he said. "However, we now have to go back to the drawing board and conduct a fundamental review of the nation's basic energy policy." Renewable-energy experts agree that the ongoing nuclear crisis, while tragic, could be a remarkable opportunity to move away from the country's focus on nuclear power development and imported fossil fuels toward solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and other natural domestic sources.

Kan's call for a new energy plan follows another unprecedented move: on May 6, he asked Chubu Electric Power Co. to close its Hamaoka power plant until it can better fortify itself against the threat of a large earthquake and tsunami. Dubbed the "most dangerous nuclear power plant in the world" for its location on a major fault line, the plant is a mere 125 miles (201 km) from Tokyo, in a region experts say is due for a major temblor. The forced shutdown was finalized on May 14 and could shrink output in the nearby industrial region, including at some Toyota auto factories. Chubu said it will reboot its suspended thermal power station to meet the summer peak electricity demand, and has called on consumers to conserve.

The need to save electricity in Tokyo and other areas served by the disaster-hit Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and Tohoku Electric will intensify this summer as air-conditioning needs surge. Based on last year's record-breaking August temperatures, which averaged upwards of 86°F (30°C), the nation's peak electricity needs this August will likely be between 55 GW and 60 GW. TEPCO has said it expects to be able to meet most of that demand and avoid rolling blackouts. The government has also set a goal for reducing energy consumption by 15%. Japan Inc. has been quick to respond: on Monday, Toshiba announced the release of a new computer with an "eco button" that cuts power consumption by 24%. Sharp is offering a new TV that can last between three and four hours without mains power. "At electronics stores now, the biggest sellers are the new power-saving air conditioners, TVs, computers and appliances," says Andrew DeWit, a Japan energy policy expert and professor at Rikkyo University.

Despite TEPCO's assurances that there won't be blackouts, however, some companies are hedging their bets and buying power generators. Companies like beverage maker Yakult, for instance, rely on a constant stream of steady electricity; a peak-hour blackout would have a devastating impact on output. The company plans to rent generators from Nikken Corp., a construction-equipment rental firm, which in turn is scrambling to meet the spike in demand for generators by buying them overseas. There are not enough generators available in Japan to meet the country's two different electrical frequencies, flowing from two incompatible power-grid systems: 60 Hz in the southwestern half (from about Nagoya down to Kyushu) and 50 Hz in the northeastern half (the other side of Mount Fuji from Shizuoka to Hokkaido, including Tokyo).

This grid incompatibility is why TEPCO, which has lost 40% of its power-generation capacity since March 11, has not been able to borrow significant amounts of electricity from utilities in the southwest that were unharmed in the twin natural disasters. A national, single-standard grid system, in tandem with more renewable-energy generation, would help solve Japan's power needs in the absence of an increase in nuclear power. But getting the nation's 10 major utilities to cooperate has proved difficult. "They're all monopoly businesses and act like separate fiefdoms," says Tom Giuffre, principal and managing director of Hot Earth Enterprise, a geothermal startup in Japan. "Small, independent power producers haven't been able to come into the market until very recently."

New legislation is expected to help diversify the nation's energy portfolio. A new feed-in tariff (FIT) will oblige utility companies to buy all the power generated through renewable sources connected to a grid at fixed, premium rates. Prices are different depending upon the type of renewable energy. Japan's first FIT scheme in 2009 created a market for electricity generated by homeowners that installed solar-power systems. The expanded tariff will go into effect on a full commercial scale in Japan next April, and will include solar PV, wind, biomass, geothermal and small hydropower projects. "With mandated pricing, regulated by law, anyone that goes into business and produces power, regardless of how they do it, knows there is a marketplace for the power," says Giuffre. "There are a lot of people lining up to do projects."

Giuffre's geothermal system is one example. Japan is one of the most geothermally rich countries in the world, with some 28,000 hot springs and nearly 200 volcanoes. But resistance to large geothermal projects is huge, stemming from concerns they will deplete the hot springs and ruin spa-related tourism. Hot Earth Enterprise is designing geothermal technology that works with the spa, or onsen, owners. Compact and portable, the company's units, made in the U.S., are miniatures of the massive borehole projects that require years of development and millions of investment dollars to build. They are designed to be used at existing hot-spring resorts to reuse the facilities' "throwaway" heat to generate power for the local communities. "We calculated that we could roll out in the [disaster-struck] Tohoku region 50 MW of power probably in about three years," says Giuffre. "We could do it in half the time and probably at one-third or one-fourth the cost [of the big projects]."

Geothermal, wind, biomass and small-scale hydropower projects all have potential in Japan, but for now, solar looks like the fastest way to add more power to the national grid. In the 1980s, Japan was the world's top solar-power producer, with strong government policies in place to promote that, but it has since fallen behind on installing large-scale solar projects. Gaetan Borgers, who leads the global solar business for Dow Corning Toray in Tokyo, says the March 11 disaster has generated new solutions for solar-power installation in Japan's relatively small geographic areas. "The [irradiated] agricultural land near the Fukushima power plant is no longer usable, so why don't we convert that into solar plants?" he asks. He cites a convincing calculation from Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology: "Rice produced on one hectare of land yields a yearly revenue of 1.58 million yen, while a solar plant on the same surface would generate a revenue of 7.5 million yen." With changes in Japan's land-use law, struggling agricultural farmers could become profitable solar farmers.

The huge task of rebuilding the tsunami-struck northeastern coast could yield expansion in the renewables sector. Hiroshi Komiyama, a former president of the University of Tokyo and now the chairman of the Mitsubishi Research Institute, has proposed as a member of the Miyagi prefecture post-disaster reconstruction panel that all homes in the affected region be installed with solar panels through government loans. "I want Miyagi prefecture to be a model for the future with respect to energy," says Komiyama. "Energy efficiency is the key point for the 21st century."