Six years ago in Asahi Shimbun (18 January 2014), I wrote that “Japan is poor in fossil fuels—but among major industrial countries, the richest in renewable energy….” So why does Japan, with “nine times Germany’s renewable energy resources, [make] nine times less of its electricity from them (excluding hydropower)”? Because “Japan’s utility oligopolies block competitors.” Opposite national energy policies “turned 3/11 into a loss for Japan and a win for Germany.” Has the decade since 3/11 healed this self-inflicted wound?
Right after 3/11, Germany closed 41% of its nuclear capacity, but replaced it all in the same year, mainly with renewables. They met 17% of electricity needs in 2010, 41% in 2019, 48% in 2020. Renewables made Germany’s economy more competitive and its power more reliable and resilient—despite government efforts to protect utilities by slowing renewables.
As Germany’s nuclear phaseout, agreed two decades ago, nears its 2022 completion, fossil-fueled generation is fading too. National greenhouse gas emissions fell 53% through 2019. In 2020, windpower generated more electricity than coal plus lignite. The power sector met its 2020 climate goal a year early, with five percentage points to spare. This year, Germany will start closing coal plants opened as recently as 2015, because operating them costs more than new renewables or electric efficiency.
Germany has less land, population, GDP, sun, and wind than Japan. In 2010–19, Japan added 88% more solar capacity than Germany—some on rooftops where it’s beaten retail electricity prices since 2014. Yet Germany added 1,685% more windpower capacity than Japan. Germany based its world-class renewable energy industries on a strong domestic market created by full and fair grid access, full competition, weakened monopolies, and mainly local ownership. Japan did the opposite. Germany enabled the new energy system. Japan protected the old one.
Japan, like Germany, began with nearly 30% nuclear electricity before 3/11, then lost it all—a 224 TWh/y drop from 2010 to 2019, triple Germany’s 66. (Recent nuclear restarts in Japan were small, unsteady, apparently uneconomic, and probably temporary.) Generation lost or gained was only 24% less in Germany than Japan (177 vs. 233 TWh/y). But opposite policies split those shifts’ composition in opposite directions.
Japan replaced lost nuclear output mainly with costly, imported, sometimes scarce fossil fuels, so fossil-fueled generation fell only 9 TWh/y in Japan but 94 in Germany (131 by 2020). Japan’s electricity rose from 11% to 18% renewable in 2010–19 despite the government’s ingeniously opaque suppression of renewables, especially windpower, to shield old thermal stations from competition. Japan’s renewable generation rose 75 TWh/y, Germany’s 139. Thus the power sector’s wholesale prices and carbon emissions soared in Japan but fell in Germany.
Japan’s disciplined and setsuden-tolerant society cut electricity use by 142 TWh or 12%, outpacing Germany’s 41 TWh or 7%. But Germany’s GDP grew more than twice as much (17% vs. Japan’s 8%), so Germany’s electric productivity grew more than Japan’s.
Both nations underperformed on efficiency, but Japan by more. The latest international assessments (2018) ranked Japan 16th of 25 nations in commercial and 6th in residential building efficiency, second in industrial efficiency but 20th in industrial cogeneration, 16th in car efficiency, 19th in freight efficiency—overall, tied with Germany and Indonesia but behind Taiwan, China, and Italy. Japan’s efficiency policies are improving, but not yet enough: Takenaka’s deep retrofit of its archetypical Higashi Kantō office (done while it remained occupied) profitably cut its energy use 72%, so it produces more energy than it uses, yet five years later it remains a footnote, not a national model.
Automotive leadership disappoints. Toyota’s and Honda’s magnificent hybrid-car advances in the late 1990s were overtaken by battery-electric cars, in which Japan (says METI) lags “very far behind” the US and EU. Germany’s VW is investing $60b in the next five years to roll out 100 electric models; General Motors will sell only electric cars by 2035. Prime Minister Suga’s catchup strategy will phase out old gasoline autos, sideline hybrids, and favor batteries. Inexplicably, Toyota is resisting. Its hydrogen car is impressive but costly because its steel platform is 4.6⨉ heavier than its 2007 carbon-fiber concept car, making the fuel cell 2–3⨉ bigger and complicating refueling. Japan remains the world leader in carbon fiber; yet who first commercialized battery-electric cars profitably made of carbon fiber, paid for by fewer batteries and radically simpler manufacturing? Germany’s BMW, in 2013.
In 2012, 49% of the generating capacity added in the US and 69% in Europe was renewable. In 2020, the International Energy Agency expected 90% worldwide. But by two months later, China had added triple the forecast windpower and a stunning 133 GW of renewables in a single year—building 82% more wind and solar capacity in 2020 than Japan had in 2019. IEA forecasts renewables’ market share in 2020–25 at 95%, because they’re the cheapest bulk power source in 85% of the world. Renewables already out-generate fossil fuels in Europe and nuclear power worldwide (by twofold in China). Renewables add as much global capacity every two days as nuclear power adds in a whole year.
So why is Japan still favoring nuclear over renewables? Because Japan’s nuclear behemoths dominate national energy policy. As Kyūshū curtails free solar power to favor costlier nuclear, the central government spreads myths of renewables’ costly and unreliable grid integration (contrary to the latest European analysis for Japan).
But what if Japan’s energy policy shed its nuclear bias? A smaller sea-girt nation, cohesive and capable, historically poor in fuels (it just abandoned offshore oil and gas exploration), with sophisticated technology and industry alongside strong rural and agrarian traditions, never used nuclear power. How did it do?
Denmark is among the most energy-efficient countries, yet still cuts energy intensity over 2% each year. Its wholesale electricity prices and power failures are among Europe’s lowest. Its electricity was 79% renewable in 2019, now nearing 90%: 61% of its 2020 generation was wind and solar. Denmark is on track to be 100% renewably powered by 2030, for which Japan, at 18% in 2019 (or 10% without hydropower), debates 22–24% targets. Denmark is half windpowered—yet its agricultural bioenergy produces even more heat and electricity.
One-eighth of Denmark’s total goods export is energy technology (over half wind-related); 6% of private jobs are in green technology industries. Denmark valuably advises 16 other nations’ energy transitions, including China’s. Danish strategy enjoys strong and durable consensus: the Climate Act, requiring 70% emission cuts in 1990–2030, won over 95% of Parliamentary votes. Sectoral action plans are coordinated by a Cabinet-level Committee for Green Transition. By 2050, Denmark intends to use 100% renewable energy of all kinds—at comparable or lower cost, with superior security and competitiveness.
Japan could do as well or better if its political economy accepted its industry’s capabilities and citizens’ aspirations. Yet dominant nuclear and fossil interests evade promised competition by arbitrarily blocking renewables’ grid access. This inflates cost and deters investment, leaving Japan’s renewable wealth, and exports of renewable equipment, largely uncaptured.
New leadership, notably by Minister Kono and Minister Koizumi, is starting to loosen old rigidities. Will old blockages be swept away before Japanese industry is locked out of global supply chains by failing modern customers’ climate-performance standards? Japanese business and financial leaders, and every Japanese citizen, will choose. Time is short.