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Chris Keenan
Chris Keenan

Newly Anti-Nuclear Japan Scrambles for Renewable Energy Solutions

With the disastrous tsunami of March 11, 2011 looming not far in the background, Japan is struggling to decide what to do about record energy shortages. Public opinion has turned strongly against nuclear energy and put plans for nuclear expansion, popular up to the time of the earthquake, suddenly out of the question. With politicians stuttering over allowing routine nuclear reactor restarts after annual maintenance shutdowns, only 19 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are currently operating, and with the summer heat working its way through Tokyo, energy demand typically strains even the fully supported grid. Without the full backing of Japan’s nuclear power plants, the question of what to do to keep the country’s lights on is becoming more pressing with each degree the thermometers climb.

With the energy crisis ramping up under the summer heat, Japan has redoubled its emphasis on its “Cool Biz†campaign that has been in place since 2005 and is now renamed “Super Cool Biz†in acknowledgement of the increasing severity of the problem. Businesses are encouraged to keep thermostats set to 85F during the height of summer and to have workers shed their suits and dress shirts for khaki shorts and sandals. Offices are also encouraged to increase the telecommuting option for workers where possible, and to shift operations toward earlier morning hours.

Even with drastic energy-saving measures in place, the hopes for making severe cuts to energy consumption are not high. Japan already consumes less energy than the world average for each point of its GDP by 20% and less than the US by a whopping 30%. With shiny new cars parked behind every garage door waiting to drink the purchased oil Japan needs to make up its energy short falls, the choices aren’t getting any easier.

Everyone is cutting down to even the smallest expenditure. To do its part in conserving energy, the Ministry of Economy has even deactivated its automatic doors. As a country they’ve already improved energy efficiency by 37% in the last 30 years according to Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. It’s not like the problem is merely curbing extravagant and wasteful uses of energy. They’re looking at having to curb perfectly practical uses of energy for only the absolutely vital ones like powering hospital equipment and food storage facilities.

In the midst of all of these energy saving strategies and campaigns remains the question of what to do next. With Japanese citizens still unconvinced of the ability of their local reactors to survive an earthquake or tsunami, proponents of renewable energy are making their voices heard. With some 200 volcanoes and 28,000 hot springs, it has been estimated that the country could supply over 80,000 megawatts of electricity, enough power to meet half of the country’s energy demand. With the topography and seashores of the coast, an additional 80,000 megawatts could possibly be produced with land-based windmills.

Prior to suffering the no confidence vote in July, Japan's Prime Minister Kan had proposed a goal of powering 10 million Japanese homes with roof top photovoltaic panels by 2020. Now, Japan has set goals even beyond Kan’s proposal and aims to increase the total PVC panel output of the country from 3,500 megawatts in 2010 to 53,000 megawatts in 2030 and to power18 million Japanese homes by that year.

Japan’s nuclear proponents and those attached to the already existing nuclear infrastructure will not easily let go of nuclear possibilities, and with the heat of summer creeping in, it seems the main direction Japan turns for electricity will be decided in the coming months. The visions of an environmentally friendly 2030 are nice, but the sweat of the summer of 2011 may help worried citizens decide they don’t mind their local reactor so much after all.

Whether the reactors are restarted or not, the hopes for nuclear expansion have most likely been forever dashed in Japan, and whatever direction the country turns for meeting further power demand will most likely include a diversified portfolio of earth friendly technology.

Masayoshi Son, Japan’s wealthiest man, has started a research foundation for renewables backed by his own investment money, and so far the foundation has been honored to list 37 of the country’s 45 prefectures as founding members. The situation is ripe for leaps in innovation that could perhaps pave the way for the rest of the world to follow. As the temperature climbs, the whole world watches and waits to see what Japan’s next step will be, and if it’s one the rest of us could possibly follow.

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Citizens should take their part in cutting down on energy consumtion, everyone has to be involved. Government is powerless without public supporting it. It's better to keep up with one hot summer rather than making reactors work again.

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