A Solar Plant in Shuzenji, Izu, Japan, inspired by the Climate Reality Project

Potential of Renewable Energy in Japan

05 March 2021 – by Viktor Tachev

Japan is among the most technically-advanced and innovative countries in the world. Yet, it is behind the curve in its energy policy and currently has one of the highest volumes of carbon emissions per capita, ranking 8th on a global scale. However, Japan has a vast potential for renewable energy adoption. With the Government’s ambitious policies and goal of achieving net-zero society and carbon neutrality by 2050, the country is starting to change course.

Japan’s Great Renewable Energy Potential

It takes just a single look at Japan’s map to understand the great potential of the archipelago for offshore wind power generation. Yet, wind only accounted for 0.6% of the energy mix in 2017.

Offshore wind potential graph of Japan, Europe, USA, China & India
Offshore Wind’s Potential, Source: IEA

The government plans to increase this capacity to 10 megawatts by 2030. The figure is set to reach between 30 and 45 gigawatts through offshore wind power by 2040. This will turn the country into the third-largest generator of such renewable energy.

According to IRENA, Japan has the third-highest potential for geothermal energy in the world (23 GW). Yet, it currently uses only around 2%.

The case is quite similar with solar photovoltaic (solar PV). Although it has the potential to account for over 12% of the country’s energy mix come 2030, however, in 2018, it accounted only for 4%.

What Holds back renewable power generation in Japan?

There is an interesting paradox. Many Japanese investors, including the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Japan Bank for International Cooperation, and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation of Japan, back renewable energy projects overseas. Meanwhile, investments in the country’s green energy projects are stagnating.

Financial challenges

Among the main reasons are the higher costs and challenging project development procedures. Currently, the price of solar energy in Japan is almost double that of Germany. To overcome this issue, the country will have to improve its FIT (Feed-In-Tariff) system immediately.

Fortunately, the Government has recognized the problem, and an auction system for non-residential solar power is currently underway. To address these, the officials plan to ensure financial support for R&D of battery storage technologies and solar panels development. The Government intends to make generating electricity from offshore wind power cheaper than thermal energy between 2030 and 2035.

Geographical obstacles

Currently, onshore wind development projects are considered challenging due to the lengthy approval processes and land-use restrictions. Japan consists of 6,850 islands, while 70% of its territory is a mountainous region. Due to it being an island, Japan’s grid is also isolated from other countries. It is segmented and consists of many smaller grids with weak interconnections. The supply-demand balance should be maintained at each of the small grids, which further challenges the renewable energy transition.

Japan city & mountain view

The country can’t capitalize on having the third-biggest potential for geothermal power generation in the world because many of the sites are in rural and mountainous areas. The power transmission network there still isn’t stable enough. Another part of the high-potential region is within national parks, which are subject to nature conservation programs. These combined factors make the development of geothermal plants costlier and more time-consuming.

The slow growth in hydropower generation is attributed to the fact that the most fruitful locations have already been identified. This means little potential remains within areas for the development of new power plants.

Net Zero Society and Carbon Neutrality Are Feasible Goals

Achieving net-zero is an urgent task for the Japanese government. The country has targeted to reduce emissions by 26% (or more) by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The environmental causes aside, renewables will reduce the country’s massive reliance on foreign sources to fulfill its energy consumption needs (over 96% as of now).

To achieve these goals, in October 2020, Hiroshi Kajiyama, Japan’s economy minister, revealed ambitious plans to make renewable energy a major power source within the local energy mix.

Under the current plans, Japan aims to ensure that renewables meet up to 24% of its electricity needs by 2030. As of 2018, the share is 17%. The targeted growth rate isn’t significant, since other much less technologically-advanced countries in the region like the Philippines, for example, aim at a 35% total share of renewables for the same period, while others are aiming at figures of approximately 25% by 2025. Although a bit conservative, Japan’s goals are a step in the right direction.

To ease the process, the Government plans to introduce a new strategic energy plan in 2021. The country will devote a bigger slice of the budget to foster renewable energy development in the country. Besides, it will focus on improving transparency and easing the electric power industry in planning and making investment decisions on future projects.

Map of Japanese districts with plans for offshore wind power projects
Districts with preparations for offshore wind power projects currently underway. Source: IEE, Japan

The bright renewable energy future ahead for Japan

If the country remains true to its plans, it can create more than 67,000 new jobs by 2050.

Corporate environmental activism also matches the Government’s efforts. The Japanese Climate Leaders Partnership promotes low carbon business activities and some of Japan’s largest banks and airlines are heavily advocating for the green energy transition, which is why the initiatives are already making their marks.

Japan aims to ease renewable energy adoption through various factors. These include shifting concerns around energy security, new policies to stimulate investment in renewable energy, mounting private sector activism in climate initiatives, and more. All this makes the country a potentially attractive soil for long-term profit in renewables and across the energy transition spectrum, including clean tech, grid flexibility, and storage. While the road towards renewable energy dominance in the country’s mix won’t be smooth, it is indeed feasible and will unlock a plethora of clean energy investment opportunities.

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