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A 100% Renewable Energy Future is Possible, Let's Have Constructive Discussions for 2050 Decarbonization.

Mika Ohbayashi, Director, Renewable Energy Institute

24 December 2020

in Japanese

On 21st December 2020, at the Strategic Policy Committee meeting, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) put forward a set of electricity generation figures for 2050 as a starting point for discussions on how to achieve carbon neutrality in Japan. The figures are; 50-60% from renewable energy (RE), 30-40% from nuclear power + fossil power with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and 10% from hydrogen and ammonia.

Although the government says the figures to be subject to change in future discussions, the 50-60% electricity from RE is the level that Renewable Energy Institute has long been calling the 'international standard for 2030'. Some media reported that the level was "comparable to that of Europe and other industrialized countries", which led some people to believe that the target was for 2030 rather than 2050.

It is not difficult to imagine that there is a lot of internal debate within the Government, but it must be said that these figures are a poor starting point for discussions and a lack of ambition.

The Committee has also accepted the number of the total volume of electricity generation in 2050, which is roughly 1,300 terwatt-hours (TWh) to 1,500 TWh, 1.3 to 1.5 times the current level. Depending on conditions, the volume of electricity generated by RE is assumed to be 650 TWh in the minimum case and 900 TWh in the maximum case. And the generation from nuclear power + fossil power with CCS would be 390 TWh in the minimum case and 600 TWh in the maximum case.

According to this volume of electricity generation, it is estimated that between 64 and 98 of nuclear power + fossil power with CCS plants will be needed in 2050, assuming 1 gigawatt (GW) per unit and a 70% capacity factor.

It is unclear how much of 30-40% electricity will be provided by fossil power with CCS, but at present the only fossil power with CCS in operation worldwide is a small scale 120 megawatts (MW) in Canada1. As for nuclear power, the most recent figure is 6% in the electricity mix, or roughly 60 TWh. METI data shows that if the 40 years reactor lifetime rule is applied, there will be only three reactors left in 2050, none of which has already started commercial operation, and there will be only eight units left in 2060, even if the extreme assumption is applied that all reactors will be operated for 60 years.

In order to supply 30-40% of the electricity from nuclear power + fossil power with CCS, it would be necessary to ensure that there are 64-98 stations in 2050, which is impossible. Not only would the costs of building new nuclear power and CCS facilities be rapidly escalating, but there would also be very severe constraints in terms of location and social acceptability, making this figure far from realistic.

Since RE has covered 20% of the total energy demand in the recent past, a figure has been chosen that is sufficiently high to be viable even if demand increases.

It is not clear whether hydrogen power will come from fossil fuels (grey hydrogen or blue hydrogen with CCS) which is what the government is currently promoting, or from green hydrogen made by RE, but if green hydrogen is assumed, the share of RE will be revised upwards by another 15-20%. This point should also be clarified.

The 2050 target should be discussed over a long enough period of time, and it would be unreasonable to set a target of 50-60% RE and 30-40% nuclear power + fossil power with CCS after just a few discussions.
Projected electricity generation and capacity of each power source in 2050 (draft) by METI
* Calculated by the Renewable Energy Institute based on the document from the Strategic Policy Committee, the Advisory Committee for Natural Resource and Energy, 21 December 2020.

Prior to this discussion, the Renewable Energy Institute was invited to present to the Committee about the study on achieving carbon neutrality in 2050 with 100% RE. The study is the result of a year-long collaboration with the Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland and Agora Energiewende in Germany, both organizations are quite well-known in RE researches. Our study is not just electricity, but a long-term scenario that looks at energy as a whole, which considers more than 140 different technologies with using a cost-optimization approach and applies the cheapest technologies for each country and region.

A more detailed overview can be found in our webinar, or we will publish this report early next year, so please look out for that. The study shows that it is entirely possible for Japan to make a transition to a 100% RE system while achieving the 2050 net zero greenhouse gas and 1.5-degree Celsius (°C) target.

Some members of the Committee reacted that “100% RE is unrealistic,” as soon as it was mentioned, but the fact is that there is already a great deal of researches globally on how to achieve carbon neutrality with RE. Actually, not only researches, there are even many regions and countries that have set themselves the goal of 100% RE.

How and when these targets will be met vary slightly from study to study, country to country, and region to region, but the main path is broadly the same. As well as reducing energy demand, decarbonizing electricity by putting RE at the heart of the supply chain. Electrification of the heat and transport sectors is promoted to implement sectoral integration. The mainstay of RE electricity will be variable RE such as solar and wind, and in order to make the most of these, not only the grid flexibility, but also storage batteries in the medium term, and green hydrogen and green sustainable synthetic fuels (such as synthetic methane made from green hydrogen and carbon dioxide) made from RE will be used in the long term. Green hydrogen will play a major role in industrial sectors that cannot be electrified. Furthermore, the new technologies such as direct air capture (DAC) will be pursued.

So far, Japan has been slow to discuss the 2030 target, but since the Prime Minister's "Carbon Neutral Declaration" on 26 October, it has rapidly become necessary to consolidate the path to 2050. The year 2030 is a key milestone on the road to carbon neutrality in 2050. It is clear from international discussions and our studies that by this time we will need to have stopped emissions from coal-fired power stations and have at least 45% of our electricity from RE. And in the case of Japan, where 10 years have passed after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, phasing out nuclear power must be completed by 2030 at the latest.

The pathway to a 100% RE transition will accelerate decarbonization in line with the 1.5°C scenario by earlier phasing out coal and the introduction of RE. It would also greatly improve air quality by eliminating air pollution caused by coal-fired power. Scaling up RE would dramatically increase energy self-sufficiency and free us from the uncertainty of fossil fuel supplies. Through a two-pronged approach to energy efficiency and RE, Japan's total energy costs will be lower than they are today, and a more localized energy industry will be created. In addition, there would be greater safety and security in not using nuclear power.

It is up to our generation to set the tone for a new future.
  • 1The 240MW Petra Nova in Texas, commissioned in 2016, has been closed since May 2020

External Links

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