Recherche FFJ Research Statement Yukiko FUKASAKU


 Exploring renewable energy systems in post-Fukushima Japan: a new innovation model?
Yukiko Fukasaku est chercheuse indépendante basée en France. Spécialiste des politiques de recherche et de l’innovation, elle a travaillé au sein de différentes organisations internationales et institut de recherche, parmi lesquelles l'OCDE. Ses principaux thèmes de recherche sont l'étude de l’innovation liée à l’énergie-environnementale, la croissance ‘verte’ et les formes d’innovation sociale.


Expectations were that after Fukushima, Japan’s energy policy would change drastically and rapidly, but its reform has proceeded slowly despite its urgency in public policy agenda. This is in stark contrast to Germany which hammered out a detailed energy reform agenda including nuclear phase-out only a few months after Fukushima. The Japanese government came up in June 2012 with three alternative scenarios centering on the share of nuclear power in the future energy mix: zero nuclear, 15%, or 20-25%. Finally in September, the cabinet produced the Energy-environment Strategy which put forth nuclear phase-out by 2030s and boosting renewables. Although the change in government in December 2012 poses uncertainty to this policy, the broad direction toward reducing nuclear and expanding renewables is likely to remain unchanged.

After Fukushima agreeing on nuclear safety control and assurance mechanism acceptable to all stakeholders is extremely difficult. Moreover nuclear is an expensive option because of the high cost in building and improving plants; hence, increasingly uncompetitive compared to other sources. Here in France we see the safer new model EPR construction in Flamanville keep adding budget and delays. Globally the industry is dominated by a few giants, whereas a large number of firms of all sizes participate in the renewables sector. Innovation stimulated by competition is likely to be faster in the latter bringing costs down. Nuclear energy may well be ‘a dream that failed’ . After all it is now clear that high risks are attached to maintaining sizable nuclear capacity in the long term in Japan; also, the country has abundant renewable energy sources that are yet to be exploited.

Reforming the energy sector presents Japan with an opportunity to mobilize its innovativeness to revive the economy. We could recall that in response to the petroleum crises of the 1970s which probably hit Japan the hardest in the industrialized world, the push for energy efficiency eventually introduced innovative and competitive industrial processes and products, making Japanese economy the wonder of the world. The aftermath of the Fukushima incident could be a similar opportunity which Japan could seize to turn around its economy.

The signs are that despite the slowness of the central government, businesses, local governments and civil society groups have taken initiative to launch renewable energy generation projects. The government is responding by taking measures that facilitate them. A major post-Fukushima policy measure is the adoption of Feed-in-Tariffs (FIT) in July 2012 which has sparked off numerous attempts in renewable power generation. FIT obliges power companies to buy electricity generated by renewable sources at fixed prices for up to 20 years. By September the growth in capacity from approved projects had exceeded half the government forecast for 2012. Other deregulatory measures introduced include opening markets to enable sale of power to organizations other than regional power monopolies. Tapping of geothermal sources is being facilitated by reform in national parks regulation. From 2013 government plans to subsidize biomass power generating equipment adoption as well as eliminating excessive red tape for building small hydropower. Also expanding zones in the sea for experimental projects to tap marine energy sources is in plan.

A diverse array of projects has sprung up to tap renewable sources. Prompted by the FIT scheme, large businesses in various industries are rushing into the so-called mega-solar business, i.e., constructing large scale photovoltaic parks in partnership with local governments to sell electricity to the grid: Softbank, JR Kyushu, Kyocera and Mitsui Bussan, just to name a few. Convenience retailers are installing solar panels on the shop rooftops across the country. Manufacturing firms are installing them on factory rooftops. Taking advantage of the FIT, these firms expect handsome profits; also, some look for positive feed back to their existing or core businesses. For IT firms the solar projects may facilitate future entry into the smart-grid business.

More innovative enterprise models are the co-operatives and other local initiatives to invest in solar or other renewable businesses. In Minamisoma, Fukushima, where a majority of residents had to evacuate following the nuclear plant meltdown, a log processing enterprise that had its business interrupted, recently installed solar panels on its site. The citizens of the city set up a co-operative to finance the initiative. Similar co-operatives are springing up in Fukushima. In fact this is becoming a prefecture level undertaking with a total of more than twenty cooperatives in plan. Minamisoma municipality itself is using the Fukushima incident as a springboard to make the city a centre for renewable energy, with biomass generation based on the plentiful forestry waste in the surrounding area as its core. The prefectural government plans to create in Fukushima a cluster of experimental initiatives on renewable energy. National Industrial Technology Institute, local universities, some large companies as well as local ones are participating.

In fact since even before March 2011 and especially after, the number of co-operatives for renewables has been multiplying all over Japan. The Konan municipality in Shiga-ken has set up a co-operative by collecting small funds from its residents to be used to purchase and install photovoltaic panels on public buildings. Profits are to be converted to shopping coupons valid in the local shops. Photovoltaic generation dominates among these co-operatives, but other renewable sources, e.g., wind, biomass and small hydropower are also being tapped. The models are similar, but there are differences in detail such as the juridical form of the enterprise, the type of partners involved, and the financing mechanism. Some of them were modeled upon those in Denmark or Germany.

Surrounded by deep seas, Japan is well endowed with marine energy sources. Little exploited so far, tapping marine sources requires experimenting, and now various types of partnerships are organised for this purpose. In the narrow Kanmon Strait between Honshu and Kyushu known for its rapid tides, the Kitakyushu municipality set up an experimental platform for tidal power generation in partnership with a university. In the tsunami-hit Sanriku, a wave power generation experimental set-up is planned at the fishing port of Kuji-shi in partnership with Tokyo University with equipment built by local shipbuilders. For marine temperature gradient power generation, which utilizes the temperature difference between surface and deep-sea water, Okinawa-ken has installed an experimental set up in Kumeshima, west of the main island, with three engineering and electric companies as partners. Other public-private partnership experimental sites are also being built to tap the energy of the rapid Kuroshio current passing along the Pacific side of Japan. These experimental platforms will test and provide proof of the effectiveness of developed technologies, a vital step required for their eventual commercialization.

Japan is also rich in geothermal potential. While waiting for large scale development projects to take shape, smaller scale binary or ‘hot spring’ power generation is expanding, using lower temperature waste heat of large plants or hot springs. Some municipalities in Kyushu have launched experimental projects with machinery makers, who are developing appropriate equipment for binary generation. Also found in abundance are the sources for small hydropower generation in the currents in mountainous areas and the well developed irrigation canals. Northern and central Japan has large potential. Even Kyushu is estimated have potential capacity equivalent to one nuclear plant. Some small manufacturers have developed equipment that are adapted to relatively flat irrigation channels, further expanding potential.

These developments indicate that if they could be scaled up, renewables could in the future account for a significant share of the energy supply mix in Japan. These projects are much smaller in scale than nuclear or thermal plants, even the large mega solar parks. Many are small locally-based, bottom-up approaches. Characteristically organizations in different sectors partner in these initiatives. Civil society organizations and local governments play key roles especially in co-operatives. Other projects are led by business or universities. Central government agencies or research institutes are often involved. Even experimental projects have multi-sector participants. The big question is which of these enterprise models turn out to be viable and productive in the long-term and scalable or replicable, and the features that will have made them successful.

What is clear is that the potential transition to a more renewable energy based economy is a different process from what Japan experienced in raising energy efficiency in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, it was the large vertically integrated manufacturing firms that led energy efficient innovation in industrial processes and products. In the current transition, the participating firms have or can develop the necessary advanced technology. But this time the key lies in making partnerships across different sectors work in developing new types of enterprise. Since the economic downturn, the innovation model that the Japanese looked for was the Silicon Valley model for IT and biotech breakthroughs. But now even if IT wizards have roles to play, it will not be as lone stars, but in becoming willing collaborative partners in joint undertakings. If a successful innovation model emerges, that could well lead to sustainable economic revival for Japan. However, the new stars may be a hoard of civil society organizations, small businesses and local governments.

19 décembre 2012