Saturday, March 11, 2017 marks the 6-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan and killed more than 19,000 people. The disaster also led to the triple meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear facility. It’s staggering to learn that more than 70,000 people still have not gone home since the disaster due to contamination concerns and that clean-up efforts at the nuclear facility continue to fail while the price tag rises, with some estimates nearing $200 billion. The title of a recent article in The Guardian describes the stark reality of the complicated, long-term effects that a nuclear power accident can cause: “Dying robots and failing hope: Fukushima clean-up falters six years after tsunami – Exploration work inside the nuclear plant’s failed reactors has barely begun, with the scale of the task described as ‘almost beyond comprehension.’”
A recent, short interview on PRI’s Living on Earth with the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research’s Dr. Arjun Makhijani about the seriousness of the current situation is a must-listen segment putting the severity in perspective: “Fukushima is possibly the longest running, continuous industrial disaster in history. It has not stopped because the risks are still there.”
Did you know that Japan had 54 operating reactors at the time of the disaster and that now, six years later, only two are producing electricity? Japan is a highly industrialized, advanced economy and yet they’ve managed to survive without almost their entire nuclear power plant fleet. How did they do it? This blog focuses on part of that answer: Japan has invested, successfully, in clean, renewable energy.
From 2011 to 2015, renewable energy generation nearly doubled in Japan. Solar power led the way in new installations, and now over 14% of the country’s electricity is generated from renewable energy resources. According to the BBC, “In 2011 Japan had just 4.9 gigawatts of installed solar capacity. Just three years later, at the end of 2014, that had leapt to 23GW.” About a year after the earthquake, Japan implemented a renewable energy Feed-in Tariff (FiT) program. FiTs are policy proposals that set a price for renewable energy resources to give a clear market signal of the value of those power sources. As Japan’s FiT program took off, the industry burned white-hot, and installations skyrocketed. The FiT program then drastically slashed the payments for renewables in order to bring installations (and costs) more in-line with current market prices. Just last year, Japan fully deregulated its electric system in an effort to encourage market competition, including competition by renewable energy.
Here in the United States, and across the globe, renewable energy prices are plummeting. Wind power and solar power are setting record low prices, and in many cases, beating even existing fossil fuel and nuclear power generation prices. In Hawaii (another island power grid), Maui Electric just signed a deal for a solar plus battery storage system at $0.11/kWh. The 28 MW solar system with a 20 MW, 100 MWh battery highlights the lower solar power prices, and plummeting prices of batteries. Japan (like the United States) still has a long way to go to incorporate renewable energy. However, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment suggests renewable energy can provide 33% of the island’s electricity by 2030 – without nuclear power.
As outlined in a special chapter in the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the human, financial and environmental toll from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan has been substantial and is unfortunately, far from over as illustrated by Fairewinds Energy Education’s Arnie Gundersen recent Japan tour photo journal. But this still-ongoing crisis led to an opportunity to transform Japan’s electricity sector; we can only hope that this is the world’s last nuclear power plant disaster and that the transformation from polluting and dangerous energy technologies towards clean, safe options continues worldwide.
–SACE’s Renewable Energy Manager, Simon Mahan, contributed to this blog