State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Japan Retreats to Coal and Energy Incoherence Reigns Supreme

Japan comes by its fear of nuclear power honestly. It is the only nation in the world that has experienced a nuclear attack: the two attacks that ended World War II and terminated Japan’s quest for an empire. It also suffered a major and environmentally disastrous nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Japan is a society that faces social, cultural and economic challenges, principal among them is their absence of fossil fuels and a set of bad choices available to power their electric grid. It is an aging nation that doesn’t welcome immigrants but is an ancient civilization that values social cohesion, the arts and sciences. Since the start of the industrial era, it has struggled with a crisis of energy supply.

In a bold move backward, its electric utilities and energy ministry are proposing the construction of 22 coal-fired power plants. According to a recent report by Hiroko Tabuci of the New York Times:

“….the Fukushima nuclear disaster almost a decade ago… forced Japan to all but close its nuclear power program. Japan now plans to build as many as 22 new coal-burning power plants — one of the dirtiest sources of electricity — at 17 different sites in the next five years, just at a time when the world needs to slash carbon dioxide emissions to fight global warming…Together the 22 power plants would emit almost as much carbon dioxide annually as all the passenger cars sold each year in the United States. The construction stands in contrast with Japan’s effort to portray this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo as one of the greenest ever. The Yokosuka project has prompted unusual pushback in Japan, where environmental groups more typically focus their objections on nuclear power. But some local residents are suing the government over its approval of the new coal-burning plant in what supporters hope will jump-start opposition to coal in Japan.”

It is easy to criticize the Japanese government for increasing its already large dependence on coal, and I will join the chorus complaining about the idiocy of the effort to build these plants. But I think it is important to learn from this and explore the mindset of Japan’s energy establishment. A recurring nightmare for all energy decision-makers throughout the world is inadequate or interrupted energy service. When the power goes out there is no internet, climate control, motor vehicle charging, electric device charging, refrigeration or light. Public reaction to energy outages is swift and negative. Management’s competence is questioned and sometimes people get fired. Coal-fired power plants cause local air emissions that can largely be eliminated with advanced scrubber technology but they also emit those pesky greenhouse gasses that impact everyone and can’t be filtered or easily captured. But greenhouse gas pollution also can’t be traced back to a single local decision-maker in the same way a power outage can. To an energy decision-maker: Coal power is bad, but no power is worse.

The move to coal also tells us that renewable energy, at the scale we need is not at a stage of development that decision-makers are willing to risk its use in place of coal. We can debate the accuracy of Japan’s assessment of renewables, but not the fact of that assessment. Their judgment is out there to see and hear. In Japan, coal is once again, king. Environmentalists and community groups are trying to stop these power plants. But the coal proponents have the fear of interrupting energy supply as a powerful argument to build coal-fired plants.

While we are all addicted to energy, the public knows that there are choices that can be made when powering an energy system and many no longer trust the utilities to make those choices. The Japanese public fears an interruption in energy supply but they want a discussion of alternatives and a real presentation of costs and benefits. There is a growing sentiment against fossil fuels along with already strong objections to nuclear power.

What is missing from the equation is a fully formed alternative to coal. Why this instant gravitation to the worst of all fossil fuels? Is the real objective to get the public to gratefully accept the somewhat lower impact and likely higher cost of natural gas or oil? Is there a climate change–based pro-nuclear argument being prepared for release? Or is coal simply the old reliable fuel source that engineers and utility executives find too seductive to resist?

The difficulty with discussions of energy alternatives is that everyone has an axe to grind and real, objective analysis is rarely available in a policy arena dominated by money and ideology. Japan is an island nation that is obviously threatened by sea level rise. So why are they (along with China) selling and financing coal-fired power plants all over the developing world? Here in America, the Trump Administration sees its energy goal as something they call “energy dominance.” We are opening up national monument lands for drilling, but no one seems interested in investing capital to explore. Perhaps investors know something about the future of fossil fuels that has eluded the experts in the White House. America’s national energy policy seems to be aimed at ensuring there will never be an oil embargo against the United States, a policy objective already achieved by the emergence of the global energy market.

There are some facts that any coherent energy policy must be built on. First, the modern economy is built on reliable sources of reasonably priced energy. Second, extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels damages the environment. Third, fossil fuels are finite and while there are a lot left, the more we use them, the harder they are to extract. Even with advances in extraction technologies, fossil fuel prices will increase in the long term. Fourth, the sun is a virtually limitless form of energy. Its demise will likely follow our species. Fifth, the price of solar energy is zero. It need not be mined or shipped, but instead must be captured and stored. The price of capturing and storing this energy directly with solar cells, by heating water, by capturing wind energy, geothermally, through photosynthesis and by other means will continue to drop as new technologies are developed. Sixth, the technology of energy storage is advancing rapidly, and battery prices are coming down.

What is missing is that breakthrough transformative technology and the organizational capacity, leadership and marketing savvy to move people away from fossil fuels. We need an alternative energy company that combines the design and marketing of Apple with the technological sophistication of Microsoft and the logistical genius of Amazon. There is money to be made in decarbonizing the world’s energy system and I assume lots of entrepreneurial minds are working on methods of picking up some of that potential profit. Perhaps the world’s governments will consider moving some of the fossil fuel subsidies over to renewable energy.

Meanwhile, we see a global energy system moving in every direction at once. We see a climate crisis that is no longer a subject of projections and models but of real-time empirical observation and analysis. The fact that a modern developed nation would even consider building 22 coal-fired power plants is beyond absurd, but a clear indicator of the incoherence and disarray of the world’s energy marketplace. The word “system” seems too rational to be applied to this mess. But our climate challenged planet desperately needs a 21st century, low-polluting, decarbonized energy system. The sooner the better.

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Graham Cowan
4 years ago

“It also suffered a … environmentally disastrous nuclear meltdown at Fukushima” — saying so will not bring out the better nature of those who profit from that lie.

If you give a little, they won’t reciprocate.

Brent May
Brent May
4 years ago

Missing from this article is why the Japanese are building these plants. I would assume that there is a need to eliminate plants that are old and non-efficient polluting plants and maybe that is the reason for most of the new builds. Since the article points to the need for a technology break through to effectively harness the sun perhaps the writer should see if the new plants will reduce the green house gas emissions per KW produce in the short term while we work on better means to harvest the sun. The whole picture is better than a selected piece for headlines grabbing.
I am all for saving this planet. However we need to provide people with the correct information and create a world wide effort and awareness. Stopping 22 coal fired plants in Japan does nothing to improve the situation if they keep the existing inefficient ones working and people move to running backup petrol generators to overcome shortages.
I will not improve the smell in the neighborhood if i clean up the dog shit in my backyard but no body else for blocks around does. Columbia University needs to pick up its socks if they want to embrace good positive change. Your article is painting the Japanese society as just plain stupid, which I assure you they are not. The whole picture or no picture

4 years ago

There is a coal fired plant in Indiana run by Duke Energy. They do liquefaction of coal so it burns more completely. The carbon dioxide emissions are pumped under ground and converted into calcium carbonate. I understand that we want to get away from carbon based fuels to produce energy, maybe this would be a stop gap measure till we find something better,