By Eric Johnston
Recent revisions to the feed-in tariff system have been welcomed by utilities as much-needed government intervention that will ensure safe and stable supply of all forms of electricity by helping to prevent renewable energy from overloading the grid and causing blackouts.
But critics say the move by an agency under the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry does little to solve the basic electricity transmission issues, and hint that the real purpose of the changes is to limit the amount of renewable energy generated so there is enough grid capacity to handle nuclear power once the reactors are turned back on.
The controversy began in September, when Kyushu Electric Power Co. announced it would no longer sign contracts with most companies that were supplying renewable energy. The reason, the utility said, was that its transmission network would be overloaded if it actually purchased electricity from all of the renewable energy suppliers it had signed contracts with.
But the larger than expected — by officials at least — number of entrants led Kyushu Electric to announce it would suspend applications from renewable energy suppliers. Four others, including Shikoku Electric Power Co., Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Tohoku Electric Power Co., and Okinawa Electric Power Co., quickly followed suit, sending a shock wave through the industry and sparking warnings that Japan’s nascent moves toward renewable energy were in danger.
A METI study found that seven utilities — Hokkaido Electric, Tohoku Electric, Hokuriku Electric, Chugoku Electric, Shikoku Electric, Kyushu Electric and Okinawa Electric — only accept about 58 percent of the total solar power renewable-energy firms can, or plan to, generate due to grid limitations.
However, renewable energy advocates say the latest decision by the energy agency under pro-nuclear METI fails to address a number of concerns and was based on assumptions about the future of nuclear power in Japan that are, to nuclear opponents, optimistic at best.
“In the basic energy plan approved by the government in April, it states that the fundamental goal is to reduce the reliance on nuclear power as much as possible. But (the agency’s) calculations for the new rules are based on the premise that all of Japan’s nuclear reactors, including those that are 40 years old, will be in operation. The result is nuclear power accounting for between 50 and 60 percent of the supply at Hokkaido Electric and Kyushu Electric during minimum load demand times, and the reduction of available renewable energy,” the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, a think tank set up by billionaire entrepreneur Masayoshi Son, said in a report released just after the agency’s announcement.
Anti-nuclear activists in Kyushu have questioned the timing of Kyushu Electric’s September announcement that it would not purchase most of the renewable energy generated. Only days before, the Nuclear Regulation Authority had given approval for two Kyushu Electric reactors at its Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture to restart.