[Viewpoint] Japan turns to renewable energy

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[Viewpoint] Japan turns to renewable energy

The corridor in the Japanese Foreign Ministry building in Tokyo is dark. People use fans instead of air conditioning. The Iwate Prefecture Government Office and the Sendai City Hall, too, are in energy-saving mode since the Tohoku Earthquake of March 11. Lights and computers are turned off during lunch, and curtains are drawn to block out the summer sun. The offices have more than 20 rules to save energy.

In July, Japan was hard at work trying to save energy. It was as if the country went back to its post-war economic revival. The measures have been successful. Even with 35 of 54 nuclear reactors suspended, the total electricity usage in the area covered by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) was never more than 90 percent of supply, even when 20 percent less electricity was supplied this year compared to last.

As of June, 80 percent of manufacturers had returned to their normal operations, according to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Only five months ago, the 500 kilometer-long (311 mile-long) coastal areas in the Tohoku region was devastated by a tsunami and 9.0 magnitude earthquake.

The civilian sector and the regional governments demonstrated diligence and patience. Their systematic efforts have been different from the incompetent leadership of Naoto Kan’s Cabinet and the unorganized rescue operations.

The power crisis following the Fukushima nuclear disaster led to an extensive debate over the future of nuclear power. The variables include the inconvenient truth that Japan sits on the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate and even stronger earthquakes and tsunamis are a certainty. The future of Japan’s economy is at stake, and even that of the world.

Should the status quo remain or should nuclear power ultimately be abandoned? While Prime Minister Kan promoted eliminating nuclear energy altogether, he decided upon a reduction. To make up for the shortfall renewable energy such as solar and wind power will be used.

Industry, electricity companies and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are protesting. They are concerned about a prolonged shortage of electricity, rising production costs and the consequent relocation of businesses abroad. Renewable energy is still small in scale and requires time to develop.

At any rate, Japan has taken the first step towards renewable energy. Seventy percent of the public support the abandonment of nuclear energy, a poll by the Kyodo News Agency found last month, as Kan languished with an approval rating of 17 percent. The Japanese had separate views on policies and politicians. They have accomplished revolutionary changes in awareness and are willing to endure the pain of energy conservation.

Local governments also support dropping nuclear energy. Fukushima Prefecture has proposed creating a new community with renewable energy. The region hopes to reinvent itself as a model for the country.

Iwate Prefecture promotes the Sanriku Eco-Town Project to expand solar and wind energy generation to coastal areas. The regions hit by the earthquake are not the only ones moving on to renewable energy. SoftBank, headed by Masayoshi Son, plans to build massive solar plants, and 47 leaders from 35 regional governments are participating in the project. The solar plants will be installed on unused land. As the renewable energy supply expands, the centralized energy generation and distribution structure will become localized and independent. The decentralization would lead to more jobs in each region.

What backed the renewable energy generation plan is the technological capacity of Japanese companies. Many companies already produce cooling and heating systems that use terrestrial heat. Siebel International, a venture company in Tokyo, makes a small hydro system that generates 1 to 10 kilowatts of electricity from small streams or farm waterways. Panasonic and Mitsui Fudosan have teamed up to use solar cells in urban development.

After being struck by atomic bombs, Japan accomplished economic development with nuclear energy. In response to nature’s warning in the form of natural disasters, Japan hopes to redesign the country based on renewable energy. Will Japan become the hub of renewable energy in Asia? It will be interesting to watch how Japan conducts the experiment.

*The writer is an editor of foreign and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan
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