Responding to Fukushima fallout, Germany and Japan explore different paths

Source: Benjamin Hulac, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, September 22, 2014

The paths to boosting renewable energy production within Germany and Japan have included widely different obstacles and led to disparate results, according to energy experts who spoke at the Brookings Institution on Friday.

They outlined portions of a road map the United States might pursue in an aggressive green energy push.

The 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — the premise of a new Brookings report — served as the backdrop to Friday’s discussion as each expert detailed how both countries had incorporated green energy in a nuclear-energy-hesitant atmosphere.

“Germany has remarkable consensus on the overall objectives they want to achieve,” said John Banks, one of the authors of the report.

Responding to the Fukushima incident, Germany’s government ordered the country’s 17 nuclear reactors — the source of 23 percent of domestic energy creation — to be offline by 2022. And Germany has set a goal to generate 25 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, then 80 percent by 2050.

“In Japan and Germany, the Fukushima accident put the future of nuclear power in doubt while increasing the prospects for large-scale electricity provision from renewable energy, and the timely implementation of demand-side management efforts,” the authors wrote to begin their report.

Japan wavers over nuclear

In Japan, “the government has come under increasing pressure from both a public that no longer considers nuclear power to be as safe and reliable as before and a strong business community concerned about the rising cost of imported energy,” the report says.

Without any nuclear power currently, Japan is forced to heavily purchase fossil fuels from beyond its borders, suffering “severe economic consequences associated with an increased dependence on imports.”

“Japan has been devastated in their economy,” said Charles Ebinger, who worked on the study with Banks, adding that Japan experienced a ¥19 trillion ($174 billion) trade deficit in fiscal 2010. “Electricity prices for households have gone up roughly 20 percent.”

Ebinger said Japan has “seesawed back and forth” about nuclear plant closures.

Japan, ranking behind the United States and China, is the third-largest oil consumer in the world, according to the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration data. It’s also the top liquefied natural gas importer and the second-largest coal importer, behind China.

Germany swiftly expands renewables

For Germany, Banks said the political and citizen realms support the nation’s shift away from fossil fuels — the platform has been labeled “Energiewende,” meaning an energy transformation — even though costs have risen.

The debate, he said, “is about how you get there,” referring to a robust renewable energy industry for Germany.

Even though Banks predicted utility companies and other stakeholders will want to get “out in front of this renewable energy wave,” he cautioned that other countries would likely not follow Germany’s energy blueprint.

Between 2000 and 2012, the United States, Japan and Germany — the largest, third-largest and fourth-largest economies in 2012, respectively — saw renewable energy expand within their domestic energy mixes.

Germany, however, has been dramatically more successful at expanding renewable energy. The sector grew from 3 percent to 21 percent nationwide during that 10-year period, according to Lisa Wood of the Brookings Institution, who moderated the discussion.

The Japanese renewable energy sector rose from 2 percent to 5 percent, while the U.S. sector fared just slightly better — increasing from 2 to 6 percent.

In the U.S., states will set policies

Ron Binz, an energy economics expert who did not work on the report and whose nomination to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was opposed by conservative political organizations in 2013, said governments need to have a thorough strategy before pursuing a renewable energy initiative.

“Governments need to have a plan,” he said, adding that nuclear power remains an important aspect to slowing carbon emissions. “Eliminating nuclear is going to be a big challenge to your climate goals.”

Singling out Colorado, Hawaii and New York as states to watch for renewable energy growth, Binz applauded Hawaii’s goal to generate 60 percent of its electricity via renewable energy by 2030.

In his interactions, Binz said, he often hears technical experts claim they can’t solve an issue, but after a few years they are able to with relative ease.

Ramping up renewable energy production in the United States and combating climate change will likely be promulgated by year-to-year technical achievements, Binz added.

“There are engineering solutions that will take us deep into renewables.”