Energy Development in Japan
Professor Toshihiko Nakata 中田 俊彦
Tohoku University, Graduate School of Engineering, Aoba-Yama
With it’s limited resources and geographic isolation, Japan relies on imports for 80% of its energy needs and nearly 100% for its fossil fuels. The costs of electricity and gasoline in Japan are also among the highest in the world. Toward a sustainable and self-sufficient society that does not rely on foreign oil, Japan has been actively diversifying it’s energy portfolio. Joining us to talk Japan’s efforts to develop renewable energies is Professor Toshihiko Nakata from Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. He is professor in the Department of Management of Science and Technology (MOST) in the Graduate School of Engineering. Frank Ling (FL) talks to Toshihiko Nakata (TN). Below is an edited transcript:
FL: Professor Nakata, thank you for joining us today.
TN: It’s my pleasure to be here.
FL: First of all, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about your department here at the university.
TN: I belong to the Management of Science and Technology department in the engineering school. The management means how to manage environmental and energy and technology policy in Japan. As you know, Japan has hardware technology like automobile manufacturing and computer manufacturing, however, the management of technology is not done very well here in this country. So that is why Tohoku University decided to create this new department.
FL: Could you give us an example of a country that has good management of technology?
TN: We have always been interested in these kinds of management of technology (MOT) schools in the United States and I think the US has more than 100 MOT schools across the nation. However, I think Japan doesn’t have any.
FL: Could you tell us how you got interested in energy policy and it’s relevance?
TN: I’m interested in energy policy in this country because when I was in mechanical engineering, I did a lot of design for power stations like combined gas turbine stations. At that time, I was interested in how to make use of my good technology in the real world. And even when I developed technology, it didn’t come to the market because of high costs or something constraining it in the market. That’s why I believe we need to understand how the market is working in the real world. That’s the way to make my technology useful into the world.
FL: Excellent. Could you tell us a little bit more about Japanese energy policy? How does it compare to the US or Europe?
TN: That’s a good question because the Japanese energy policy has been following the US model for 50 years or so. The Japanese have aimed to establish a big energy industry, big manufacturing businesses, and big oil companies. However, Japan has a very different culture, which means that Japan requires a greater variety of energy choices based on the culture, on the population density, or lifestyle here. In that sense, the US is not good to follow. In contrast, Europe has a greater variety of choices, especially Northern European countries. They have more biomass oriented energy supplies like biomass wood. The French has a nuclear oriented energy policy. Italy has a situation similar to Japan, however, they have better management…except for the current blackout! They import electricity. They import gas and oil, but they are good at managing, using a variety of sources. That’s the big difference with Japan.
FL: There is definitely a growing demand for energy. What do you thing are the best policies to meet these future needs?
TN: I like neutral policies among nuclear and renewable.
FL: So, a combination?
TN: Even in this country or even in my university, some students are strong supporters of renewables while others are strong supporters of nuclear. And there is no one who understands both how hydropower works and why fossil fuel is important. So, my feelings is to find the right combination of alternatives. The mix of alternatives should be based on the culture or the geographical situation of each locality.
FL: Among these renewable sources, we have wind, tidal wave, photovoltaics….
TN: …sand geothermal, hydropower, and biomass.
FL: So, when we talk about biomass, are we talking about methane gas or…
TN: Yes, methane gas made from animal waste. Also, wood chips is another alternative, especially in Northern Japan where we produce a lot of wood and most of them are not used too well.
FL: Do you believe that these different technologies should be developed as renewable sources of energy?
TN: Yes, they should be developed and they also should be adapted to local economics and environment. If it is too costly, no one will want to buy it. You have to consider how cost effective they are.
FL: There has been a lot of research into fuel cell technology. What is their role with renewable energies?
TN: Fuel cell technology is very interesting because in the transportation sector, there are no other fuels except oil. It requires petroleum, which provides more than 95% of energy in the transportation sector. However, if fuel cells come into the transportation sector, we can switch from fossil fuels to hydrogen. When we produce hydrogen from renewables by electrolyzing water, we won’t need fossil fuels to run the automobiles. In the transition stages, we can use fossil fuels like natural gas by steam reforming to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cells would have a great impact on the transportation sector, eventually replacing the petroleum based fuels.
FL: Instead of transmitting energy over long distances, what do you think about the idea of fuel cells to store energy for homes?
TN: Current technology for storing hydrogen in the home is not stable, not cheap, and not safe. In that sense, we prefer to buy methane gas from the gas company. Probably in several years, as fuel storage technology becomes cheaper and safer, we can do it.
FL: I understand you’ve done some studies in rural parts of Japan. Could you tell us how their needs of electricity differs from that of the cities like Tokyo?
TN: Tokyo is metropolitan city so they require a high density of energy supply like nuclear and methane gas; however, 40% people of Japan live in rural areas. Here in Sendai, you can see a lot of green and mountains. Sometimes wild bears even come into the campus. So in this area, we have a lot of choices like PV for the residential homes, sometimes wind, and there is a lot of biomass. So, in the traditional way, Japan’s energy policy was mainly designed by people in Tokyo. Also, the population is always increasing. The government’s goal has been to develop energy for people’s livelihoods. But for the first time, the population of Japan is decreasing in Japan’s history. In that sense, rather than having an interest in the mass of the population, we can think about a variety of choices under the same amount of maximum population and maximum energy supply. That is why we began to study energy policy simulation at this university.
FL: Are these studies more economics based or technology based?
TN: Both actually. I was originally trained as an engineer so my background is in power station technologies and gas turbines; however, economic parameters are also just as important. We can now bring both economical and technological factors into a computer simulation and get reasonable results.
FL: What kind of economic factors are you using? I presume you are using some sort of incentive so that people will adopt new technologies or change their habits. Could you describe some of them?
TN: The easiest one is the tax ,like environmental or energy tax, which is easy to implement or subsidy. The most difficult consideration is people’s choices or preferences. A good example is the automobile. They have started to manufacture hybrid cars, for example, the Prius. But they also still produce high emission vehicles, especially sports cars. So, we have to decide what is best for the people. Automobiles offer a variety of culture for transportation purposes but also for fun or hobbies. People’s preferences are the last target in the model.
FL: Along with the issues of energy are environmental factors. For example carbon dioxide emissions. Could you tell us how you consider these issues?
TN: Okay, that’s the third parameter I have to consider in the model. The first one is energy conversion technology. The second one is the economic parameter. The third one is carbon constraint. Well, everyone knows the Kyoto Protocol so when we think of technologies, we also calculate the total emission of carbon. In the model, it’s relatively easy to set the constraint of maximum emission of carbon. So within that maximum constraint, we can get an optimized solution. How much this fuel must be consumed or how much this technology will be introduced into the model. Carbon is always important when we think about any technology. Also carbon emissions have a lot of uncertainties. We don’t know how much is absorbed by the forest or by biomass.
FL: So it is still not well understood.
TN: Right, it’s relatively easy to calculate the emission from fossil fuel combustion.
FL: One last question. I’m taking the case of China here. They certainly have a growing need for energy and a lot of their technology has not been modernized. What recommendations would you have for such a big country like them?
TN: My comment is that China has a lot of choices based on their different regions. China is not a uniform country you know, so populated regions like Beijing and Shanghai require a mass production from nuclear power or fossil fuel combustion. However, in rural areas, they can install renewable based (biomass based) society. Also, China has a strong government policy. For example, in Beijing, the government has prohibited the consumption of coal, so what happened there was that people switched within one year from coal to gas. It’s amazing in that sense. So, when the government has good decision making, I think China’s future is pretty bright. Also, they can switch to a future based society quickly. Ten years ago, they were using bicycles but ten years later they are using electric vehicles. However, Japan has a very sad history of polluted atmosphere in the cities. A lot of people suffered from asthma here. So in this case, China can skip this and go directly to a future energy system.
FL: I guess we are running a little bit out of time today. Are there any last words you’d like to add?
TN: I would be happy to see a lot of visitors in the future.
FL: Thank you very much for joining us today.
TN: You are welcome.