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Electricity in Japan
June 20, 2012 8:38 PM   Subscribe

In the year and a half since the earthquake and tsunami caused an industry-wide Japanese nuclear shutdown , Japanese consumers and businesses have been urged to conserve energy whenever possible. Although a few reactors are being brought back online temporarily, the Japanese government has pledged to move away from nuclear power sources. Yesterday the Japanese government announced what may be the world's highest solar photovolatic feed-in tariff at 53 cents per kWh generated.

What to do with all that contaminated land near Fukushima? Build what may be the world's largest solar power plant, where it won't particularly matter if the solar panels and equipement are slightly irradiated.
posted by thewalrus (47 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Japan is also using 40 percent more fossil fuels, and has scrapped emission reduction targets.
posted by wilful at 8:42 PM on June 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


It's also their first recorded trade deficit in more than thirty years due to the costs of imported fossil fuels, which cost $55 bn more.
posted by wilful at 8:45 PM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


To what company or country is that extra $55 billion going? Just curious.
posted by crapmatic at 8:51 PM on June 20, 2012


Power utilities such as Tepco have to buy more foreign oil, coal and natural gas to power thermal plants. Typically, oil comes from the Gulf or even Iran, while very generally speaking coal and natural gas comes from Australia.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:55 PM on June 20, 2012


The Persian Gulf, partly.
posted by thewalrus at 8:56 PM on June 20, 2012


Remember what happened the last time Japan's oil supply was constrained by external politics?....
posted by thewalrus at 8:56 PM on June 20, 2012


Oh give me a fucking break.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:07 PM on June 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


I might add that the US pressured Japan to observe the Iran oil embargo this past spring, which Japan observed, and the US then relented, thank god.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:08 PM on June 20, 2012


Far more people are going to die (or have died) due to fear of radiation poisoning than from actual radiation poisoning.
posted by wilful at 9:12 PM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I guess the sarcasm didn't come across clearly in my previous post. I was referring to the extreme implausibility of anything happening as a result.
posted by thewalrus at 9:12 PM on June 20, 2012


Ah, I see. Sorry for my hyperbolic reaction!
posted by KokuRyu at 9:16 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


From my point of view (the linked photo is taken from a seaside hotspring we like to go to, and shows the general location of the Oi reactor, which is obscured by the hills), Japan is in a hopeless position. There is not enough generation capacity to power Japan's economy. On top of that, rural regions depend on the nuclear power plants to power their economies - there's nothing else, not even little software or IT shops or anything. Economic development has depended on nuclear power, and without it Japan is screwed.

However, it's pretty obvious that if another earthquake hits one of these plants - a not unlikely scenario in that a number of them, including the Oi plant, as well as the Hamaoka and Tsuruga plants are built directly on top of active faults - it's going to be Fukushima all over again.

I also disagree with the idea that only a small number of people were affected by radioactive contamination. There are about a million people in Fukushima alone who are living with nuclear contamination, and the problem extends north to Miyagi and Iwate, and south to Tochigi and Ibaraki. In fact, the mountains that border Kanto to the west have been heavily dosed with cesium. Tokyo Bay has a significant amount of cesium contamination. We're just into the beginning of this thing.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:26 PM on June 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


Gas comes from a lot of places, but one of the majors right now, particularly in Asia is Russia. The Sakhalin fields are very close to Japan, though, given the political history, I don't know if they would buy from there.
posted by bonehead at 9:36 PM on June 20, 2012


On a brief search, Japan does indeed import from Sakhalin.
posted by bonehead at 9:38 PM on June 20, 2012


Let's drink to us, let's drink to all the Russian Gas!
posted by thewalrus at 9:44 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hopefully Japanse demand will help cause solar prices to drop even further. Most people don't realize just how massive solar energy is and how rapidly it's growing. In germany solar made up about 3.2% of all power, while the year before they only made up about 2%. So enough solar power was installed in one year to provide 1.2% of all the electricity they need. And the rate is increasing

Meanwhile the US is Imposing tariffs on solar panels, artificially driving the cost up.

Yet, all the time you see people make comments like "there's no way solar could ever provide enough power" bla bla bla.
posted by delmoi at 9:49 PM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


(Typically you think of demand as driving prices up, but with something like solar new demand can cause more production to come online, ultimately driving prices down)
posted by delmoi at 9:52 PM on June 20, 2012


I'd always imagined I'd have solar panels if I ever bought a house. Then, when we bought our house here in Japan, I was stunned to find out that our contract with our gas (?!) company forbid us from installing solar panels. Given that our house is built on a hill, and can't be hooked into the city gas grid (woohoo, giant cannisters behind our house!), we're essentially stuck with this company, and can't install solar. I have yet to find a single person who can explain this, and by explain, give a reasonable answer to why this is possible, rather than "it's what the gas company said."
posted by Ghidorah at 9:54 PM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Much like how the economies of scale for LCD TV/Monitor production have driven down prices. Over a year ago I paid $1100 for a 60" 120Hz LCD, several years prior to that it would've been $4000.

The thing about solar panel manufacturing (from 156mm polycrystalline or monocrystalline cells) is that's it's not exactly rocket science. The manufacture of the cells themselves requires very expensive equipment and is somewhat of an art, but the process of tabbing, stringing, encapsulating and framing cells is actually less complicated than producing a $75 computer motherboard.
posted by thewalrus at 9:55 PM on June 20, 2012


You mean the gas company is also your electricity company? I hope that Japan has some kind of federal government feed-in tariff law that overrides objections of the local utility, assuming that what you want is a gridtied solar power system (not offgrid with batteries).
posted by thewalrus at 9:56 PM on June 20, 2012


the world's highest solar photovolatic feed-in tariff at 53 cents per kWh generated.

Australia had 60 cents for a short while until the govt belatedly realized that many more people had signed up than they budgeted.
posted by jacanj at 10:05 PM on June 20, 2012


I know that Tokyo Gas tried out a pilot propane fuel cell-cogen project with Ballard a few years ago (they even had devices installed in the new prime minister's residence) but there were "issues" with Ballard, and they essentially got booted out of the project.

The Sakhalin fields are very close to Japan, though, given the political history, I don't know if they would buy from there.

Siberia an opportunity too good for Japan to pass up
posted by KokuRyu at 10:07 PM on June 20, 2012


I hope that Japan has some kind of federal government feed-in tariff law that overrides objections of the local utility, assuming that what you want is a gridtied solar power system (not offgrid with batteries).

Ghidorah would know more than me, but many Japanese homeowners can already sell electricity back to the grid. The new solar projects are massive private enterprises that also sell energy back to the grid.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:09 PM on June 20, 2012


>Australia had 60 cents for a short while until the govt belatedly realized that many more people had signed up than they budgeted.

Plus 6 cents offered by Origin (the retailer) on top of that. The rate still exists, but it has been grandfathered, i.e. no new entrants. I'm on it, so I pay about 23c/kwh to import, and I export at 66c/kwh.

We're making out like bandits. This is middle-class welfare. Terrible policy. Works well for me though.
posted by wilful at 10:11 PM on June 20, 2012


This is middle-class welfare.
Thank god we don't have that in the U.S. However, I expect that as things get going, we'll allow the rich to buy low and sell high. After all, that's what creates jobs!
posted by spacewrench at 10:23 PM on June 20, 2012


actually, thewalrus, that's the absolutely bizarre thing about it. We have a separate electricity provider. I imagine it has something to do with making sure we use a lot of gas to heat our water and heat the house in winter, but other than that, I don't want to look too far into it for fear it might taint me in some abyss gazing way.

As for being able to sell back solar power, I'm under the impression that it's possible, but again, the need to look into it was pretty forcibly removed when we moved in and had to sign a contract with the company whose meters and such had already been installed.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:46 PM on June 20, 2012


I know that a lot more LPG is being imported from Indonesia to Japan.
posted by gen at 11:57 PM on June 20, 2012


Hopefully Japanse demand will help cause solar prices to drop even further.

Solar prices are low right now largely because of a glut from part of the market collapsed rather than a sudden decrease in manufacturing costs, so increasing demand would raise them back closer to normal, short term. But hopefully over long-term it'll have that effect.
What the solar industry needs is less volatility with governments randomly announcing then cancelling support, crushing solar companies that invest in factories needed to meet demand that just vanishes with policy changes.

A Bay Area company has developed a very (very!) expensive machine that can cut prices by slicing silicon boules with protons instead of a wire saw, allowing many more panels to be made from the same boule. Hopefully this news will get them some orders, because it slices the crystal thin enough to be flexible, and I'd love to be able to buy flexible cells with Si efficiency! :)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:01 AM on June 21, 2012


I imagine it has something to do with making sure we use a lot of gas to heat our water and heat the house in winter, but other than that, I don't want to look too far into it for fear it might taint me in some abyss gazing way.
How long does your contract last? I don't know why they would have that clause, but one thing to keep in mind is that if you just want to heat water, solar can be really efficient, since you can skip the electrification step.

As far as net metering goes, in a lot of places it's dictated by the government: Power companies don't have a choice.
posted by delmoi at 12:10 AM on June 21, 2012


solar plants with a total generating capacity of 100 megawatts

Not much when consider a nuclear plan can generate 1 or more Gigawatts (1000 MW). So they'd need to scale up 10 times at least just to replace one average nuke plant (some of these were 4 GW nuclear plants I believe due to multiple reactors).
posted by stbalbach at 12:21 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem with the contract, delmoi, is that the house was already built when we bought it. By buying it, we also bought into the contract, which as far as I know is roughly the life expectancy of the house (20 years! Woohoo! Japanese housing!), since all of the hardware was pre-installed. When I asked, I was essentially told that we could break the contract, but we'd have to pay to have our existing gas pipes and meters removed, and then make arrangements for another company to install their own, all the while waiting around with no way to take warm showers or cook. Our gas company is pretty much a monopoly in our area, so...

This is one of the things that went on the list of things I wish I'd known before buying a house, foreign language edition.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:29 AM on June 21, 2012


Not much when consider a nuclear plan can generate 1 or more Gigawatts (1000 MW) So they'd need to scale up 10 times...
First point: the Gujarat Solar Park is up to 605MW By next year they expect to be at 980MW, essentially 1GW*

Second point: unlike nuclear, solar is continuous. A solar "plant" is really just a single solar panel. In fact a lot of the time people talk about "solar parks" rather then solar plants. Beyond the individual panel, solar power is essentially a continuous quantity. There's no limitation on scalability, beyond panel availability.

Third point: The only question is whether or not ten 100 MW solar "parks" cost less then a single 1GW nuclear plant. And the answer is yes. I went through the math in another thread on this, but based on real world data for actual nuclear power plants that have been recently constructed, and the costs of that indian solar park, the solar park ends up being cheaper to build, and critically takes far less time as well. And you start generating power right away, while you have to wait years and years for a nuke plant to finish.

Run the numbers. If you were given $10 billion to invest in carbon-free energy production, would you rather invest in Solar, which will start making money immediately and be finished in a few years, or a nuclear plant that could take years to finish? (And don't forget decommissioning costs)

*(now obviously you have to adjust for weather, but nuke plants don't opperate 100% of the time in practice either. You can check out the generation report for that Indian plant to see how much energy they actually managed to produce, per watt of peak capacity rather then calculating estimates based on isolation numbers. Solar is definitely cheaper then nuclear when looking at real world cost and output)
posted by delmoi at 3:29 AM on June 21, 2012


Hopefully Japanse demand will help cause solar prices to drop even further.

Solar prices are low right now largely because of a glut from part of the market collapsed rather than a sudden decrease in manufacturing costs, so increasing demand would raise them back closer to normal, short term.


Such high FITs could easily backfire. Too-high FITs in Germany and Spain already distorted the market, keeping demand and prices so high that PV couldn't compete elsewhere with other power sources. This was especially perverse in not-very-sunny Germany, since most of the PV panels installed there could have generated significantly more electricity and been much more useful if they had been installed elsewhere. Much of the real potential for CO2 emissions reduction is in off-grid applications in developing countries, and overly-high FITs diverted much of the available capacity from such uses to filling the pockets of "eco-conscious" middle-class German families.

As for Spain, after feeding a speculative growth, the cash-strapped government was forced to an about-turn which retroactively and drastically cut the FIT for PV power. This nuked the budding Spanish solar sector.

In my opinion, the real motivation behind this Japanese decision is less one of helping the environment, or emancipating the country from solar power, that dropping a lifeline for Japanese semiconductor companies struggling against the Chinese competition. I won't be surprised if foreign PV panel producers trying to sell their goods in Japan are drowned in red tape.
posted by Skeptic at 4:43 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


"emancipating the country from nuclear power", sorry.
posted by Skeptic at 4:47 AM on June 21, 2012


Ontario briefly had 80.2¢/kWh for ground-mount systems < 10kW. For about a week when the program launched, there wasn't the requirement to have fully separated metering, so a couple of systems got installed that could import from the grid at ~11¢, and export the same power for 80¢. It was, apparently, an honest homeowner who pointed out the error.

I've only recently started working in utility scale solar, and I tell you, the thing that gets the DOUGs worried is solar's ramp rate. 0-100% in seconds, and no mechanical inertia. I kinda like it.
posted by scruss at 4:48 AM on June 21, 2012


In my opinion, the real motivation behind this Japanese decision is less one of helping the environment, or emancipating the country from solar power, that dropping a lifeline for Japanese semiconductor companies struggling against the Chinese competition. I won't be surprised if foreign PV panel producers trying to sell their goods in Japan are drowned in red tape.

I would be shocked if you were wrong.

What the solar industry needs is less volatility with governments randomly announcing then cancelling support, crushing solar companies that invest in factories needed to meet demand that just vanishes with policy changes.

Well No. What the solar industry needs to do is the cost of Solar below the cost of a gas fired CCGT fueled by Australian LNG + carbon cost. Then politics don't matter as you have huge swaths of the developed world where the can compete against the marginal traditional generation capacity. The FIT are there to support the industry long enough to get there, but they need to get there. If the current technology isn't there for scale production to meet that bogey then really we shouldn't be encouraging companies to prioritize production over R&D. Unfortunately FIT incentivize production once you get cell costs below a level where the FIT allows a decent rate of return.
posted by JPD at 4:50 AM on June 21, 2012


Such high FITs could easily backfire. Too-high FITs in Germany and Spain already distorted the market
Well, since the market is much more important then environment, that's obviously a terrible thing. My god a distortion!?

And who was prevented from putting up solar panels because of Germany? Like I said, demand creates increased production, which in turn reduces prices. Rather then keeping panels from places where they would produce more power, that demand made things cheaper.

The only reason why solar has any trouble competing with coal, oil, and natural gas is because of the enormous externalize created by the fact that they don't have to pay for any damage caused by global warming or other pollution. If those things were priced in, wind and solar (as well as nuclear) would be far, far less expensive.
that dropping a lifeline for Japanese semiconductor companies struggling against the Chinese competition. I won't be surprised if foreign PV panel producers trying to sell their goods in Japan are drowned in red tape.
Oh god you mean they might help to save the environment for selfish reasons!? That would be, like, the worst thing ever! (totally worse then creating 20km radius uninhabitable exclusion zone in one of the countries with the highest population densities in the world, and definitely worse then raising the earths temperature by a few degrees or increasing cancer rates due to particulate emissions)

The only way global warming is going to be stopped is if people's interests can be alined with doing so. If japans economic interests lie in helping subsidizing their solar industry, awesome.
posted by delmoi at 5:00 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well No. What the solar industry needs to do is the cost of Solar below the cost of a gas fired CCGT fueled by Australian LNG + carbon cost.
Natural gas costs aren't the same everywhere, you have to ship the stuff, and it isn't free.

The other thing you have to consider is payout rate. The relative cost depends on your time frame. With solar, you build once and the panels will continue to produce electricity indefinitely for very low maintenance costs. With natural gas, you have to continue to pay for gas forever.

How much would it cost to build a 1GW gas plant and fuel it for 10 years? What about 20 years? How much more expensive would that be then, say, 6GWp solar park? (which should provide the equivalent of 1GW full time over the course of a year assuming 4h average isolation)

What are the actual numbers here?

(There's also a risk natural gas prices will rise if it ends up being used for things like transportation fuel. With solar, the only risk is if electricity prices crash, or perhaps the sun exploding prematurely)
posted by delmoi at 5:08 AM on June 21, 2012


delmoi, I am all for FITs for different renewable energy technologies, including PV, and I don't consider them a distortion per se, especially not as the real costs of fossil fuels and nuclear energy aren't properly accounted for. I also am all for incentives that will help develop and deploy renewable energy technologies and make them directly competitive in the long term.

However, too high FITs can also be counterproductive. In the case of Germany and Spain, production of PV panels couldn't expand fast enough to keep pace with the increased demand, which led to shortages and high prices. Then, when production finally caught up, much more PV power generation capacity was installed than had been foreseen when setting the FITs, making the FITs prohibitive. The FITs were then abruptly cut, bankrupting many people who had invested in PV power generation. At the same time, all those new PV panel factories are suddenly without a market, bankrupting also those who had invested in them.

Ultimately, a lot of people who are seriously concerned about the environment, and who had actually put their money into improving it, have been directly hit by this. I know, because I actually have close relatives among them.

This is not about "putting the market above the environment". If you are going to use market mechanisms such as FITs to promote environmentally-friendly options, the first thing you should do is understanding how the market works, and watch out for nasty unintended consequences.

I spent part of last week reading this, I suggest you do the same before indulging into personal attacks against people you disagree with.
posted by Skeptic at 5:49 AM on June 21, 2012


F'ck I wrote a long piece and the HTML f'cked it up and I actually have work to do.

Long story short (and you can get this data from the EIA) with LNG at 8/mmbtu (where you could buy LNG on long-term contract for delivery to Japan) the new build economics of base load CCGTs are about $65/mWh. 8 is not a sustainable LNG price over the next 20 years as you can deliver LNG from Qatar or West Africa at less than 5/MMBtu. At 5 you can earn a 10% ROE at ~$45 or so. My back of the envelope math on solar says its like ~$75-$80/mWh for a 10% ROE at a $4000/kw cap cost and 4h insolation.

And yes I realize Nat Gas has to be shipped - that's why I picked a benchmark, and not just any benchmark, but the marginal supplier of nat gas to Japan. In the US solar has bigger issues because the marginal cost of shale gas appears to be about $5/mmbtu.
posted by JPD at 6:40 AM on June 21, 2012


What the solar industry needs is less volatility with governments randomly announcing then cancelling support, crushing solar companies that invest in factories needed to meet demand that just vanishes with policy changes.

Well No. What the solar industry needs to do is the cost of Solar below the cost of a gas fired CCGT fueled by Australian LNG + carbon cost.


I think you are both right. In the short term, renewables still need support to compete with fossil fuels, especially as long as carbon emissions are not yet properly priced. But that support must be solid and dependable. Sudden policy changes have already ruined too many people to encourage investment in this field.

And the long term aim, of course, is that renewables become able to compete head-to-head without help.
posted by Skeptic at 7:37 AM on June 21, 2012


The only way global warming is going to be stopped is if people's interests can be alined with doing so.

I'm pretty interested in maintaining a habitable and diverse planet going into the future if that counts.
posted by nTeleKy at 8:33 AM on June 21, 2012


JPD: we're well south of $3000/kWAC for ground mount solar capital costs for projects in the US southwest.
posted by scruss at 8:39 AM on June 21, 2012


Obviously government various failures to maintain subsidies long term has caused all kinds of problems in the industry. But part of the reason that subsidies were dropped was because solar is becoming more and more efficient. However, the subsidies have obviously been very helpful in boosting the industry, and reducing costs. Arguing that the panels could be "better used" in other parts of the world completely misses the fact that they are being used in Germany, and the overall effect has been to reduce costs, and more importantly proving that massive investment in solar energy is possible and actually works, even in more norther countries.

The Charanka Solar Park saw a $280 million dollar investment yield 214MWp of output power (so far), that comes out to just $1300 per MWp, a lot less then the $4000 you suggested.

Looking at total output, it seems like they managed to generate 31.621 GWh in April, So over the month that averages to 43.918875 MWh/h over the month, so once everything is factored in the actual isolation (in April) was 214/44 = 4.863 hours per day. Obviously India is a good location for solar. The practical insolat
posted by delmoi at 1:05 PM on June 21, 2012


I spent part of last week reading this, I suggest you do the same before indulging into personal attacks against people you disagree with.
Sorry about that. I lost a decent amount of money investing in solar stocks a couple years ago and so I know how much government fickleness when it comes to subsidies can hurt investors. I don't own the any solar stocks anymore, but my main concern is building as much capacity as fast as possible. It's too bad if investors get screwed, but when you invest money you know you're taking a risk. Clearly lower feed in tariffs would be more stable, but they might not spur investment to the same extent.

Ultimately, investors are taking risks. It's too bad for them if they lose money (as I did) because governments pull subsidies but ultimately it is of little concern, when you compare that to things like massive flooding in Thailand or Pakistan destroying thousands of homes, droughts in East Africa killing massive numbers of people and so on.
posted by delmoi at 8:37 PM on June 21, 2012


the world's highest solar photovolatic feed-in tariff at 53 cents per kWh generated.

Australia had 60 cents for a short while until the govt belatedly realized that many more people had signed up than they budgeted.


As wilful posted, it was even higher. I get 68c per kWh until 2016.
posted by bystander at 1:11 AM on June 22, 2012


So first Japan manages to eff over the poor parts of the world that, for better or worse, are largely dependent on fossil fuels for generation, and now they're driving up the price of solar? Good for the Chinese solar companies that are drowning in red ink at the moment, but pretty sucky for everyone else.

I fully understand their need/desire to shut down their nuclear plants. I even understand the need to not restart some of them which happen to be particularly vulnerable. Abandoning the rest, however, is terribly short sighted both in the sense of "how will our neighbors feel about this tomorrow" and the "we're all going to roast far beyond IPCC expectations here in a few years" sense.

Radical change almost always entails radical consequences for everybody else.
posted by wierdo at 11:44 AM on June 22, 2012


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