Japan: Softbank goes solar, will others follow?

Japan’s private sector split on nuclear switch


TOKYO – Softbank president Masayoshi Son is not waiting for entrenched utilities and the government to get their act together on shifting Japan’s economy away from depending on nuclear reactors that are located on dangerous fault lines. 

Son, who is ethnically Korean and perhaps Japan’s wealthiest man, last week said Softbank would shoulder most of the 80 billion yen (US$980 million) cost of building 10 massive solar power plants in Japan. Other corporations and state organizations are making their own moves to save power or create new energy technologies, after the March disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant forced Japan to break out of its malaise of recent years. 

Son says prefectures including Hokkaido, Nagasaki and Saitama (a suburb of Tokyo) will join his project to build solar power plants to wean Japan off nuclear energy. They will set up a council to coincide with a meeting of the National Governors’ Association in July. 
The 19 prefectures in the project include Nagano, Mie and the auto industry heartland of Aichi and Shizuoka, all of which lost power supply when the government ordered a cold shutdown of Hamaoka nuclear plant, built in the 1970s on the site of massive quakes and tsunamis throughout history. 

”The Hamaoka nuclear power plant had covered more than 80% of the electricity needs of our prefecture,” said Shizuoka governor Heita Kawakatsu. ”We cannot help but switch to solar power to compensate for it. This is a big turning point.”  The prefectures will build vast solar power farms on abandoned farmland – for which Japan has no shortage. Son also wants to involve seven prefectures in western Japan, including Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo, home to yakuza mafias allegedly connected to groups hiring temporary laborers, known as ”nuclear gypsies”, to do the dirty work at reactors. 

Already, more than half of Japan’s aging nuclear reactors are switched off, and many sensible Japanese – including many progressive chief executive officers – would like to keep it that way. Japan’s automobile manufacturers, long the backbone of the economy, are radically altering work schedules. An estimated 900,000 auto workers will take Thursday and Friday off, and work Saturdays and Sundays instead. The move will not only save energy during peak weekday periods, it could also boost domestic tourism and fill hotel rooms normally empty on Wednesday and Thursday nights. This will cut down on gas-guzzling traffic gridlocks and crammed trains on weekends, and inspire more urbanites to spend time and money in declining rural areas. 

Many in Japan hope the nation will regain the status it had in the 1980s as the world’s leading solar power producer. Dow Corning Toray in Tokyo is among those calling for turning contaminated land around the Fukushima reactors into a massive solar power farm. Members of the reconstruction panel in devastated Miyagi prefecture are calling for government loans to ensure all new homes in disaster areas have solar panels. 

Others want to make better use of geothermal energy from some of Japan’s 200 volcanoes and 28,000 hot springs, which are the throbbing pulse of domestic tourism. Share values in Japan Wind Development Corporation have tripled since the power supply disruptions following the March disasters. 

But will Japan’s government, renowned for preserving the status quo, really go green? Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other senior party leaders have made conflicting statements on whether the government will really scrap plans, inherited from previous rulers, to boost nuclear power production from its pre-quake level of 30%. “Under the current energy policy, by the year 2030, more than 50% of Japan’s electricity will come from nuclear power generation and 20% from renewable energy sources,” Kan told a press conference this month. “However, we now have to go back to the drawing board and conduct a fundamental review of the nation’s basic energy policy.” 

Kan, meeting leaders of the Group of Eight nations in France this weekend, is expected to trumpet the government’s so-called Sunrise Project, which has been on the table gathering dust for seven years. It aims to reduce the cost of solar power over the next 10 years to a third of current levels, to spur more people to install it. 

Since those government measures could take 10 or 20 years to develop, Japan’s private sector is moving on its own. Companies are worried about power shortages or rolling black-outs this summer because Japan’s two power grids systems – 50 Hz in the north from Shizuoka to Hokkaido including Tokyo, and 60 Hz from Nagoya to Kyushu down south – are not compatible. This means that Tokyo Electric Power Company, which lost 40% of output after the March 11 disasters, can’t easily borrow power from many of Japan’s nine other private utilities. 

Seven-Eleven, which has 13,000 convenience stories in Japan, plans to install solar panels on the roofs of 1,000 stores in coming months, and will spend $123 million on switching to LED lighting. 

The annual Tokyo Bay fireworks festival, originally set for August 13, has been canceled, and organizers have moved the Sumida River fireworks festival back a month to August 27 to avoid expected power shortages during the hottest weeks of summer. 

Since many old-guard Japanese politicians have come out against using daylight savings time, saying it will cause ”confusion”, Aeon, Japan’s largest supermarket chain, will effectively go to daylight savings time this summer on its own. The company’s stores will open and close an hour earlier to save electricity on lighting. 

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will move work schedules ahead one hour for many of its 25,000 employees, meaning some will start at 7:30 am from June 6 to September 30. Teachers, police and firefighters will be exempt, along with employees who must take care of kids or elders at those times. 

Many companies will cite reasons for why they should be exempt from setsu-den energy saving measures, and not all executives in Japan are taking public stands against nuclear energy. Toshiba president Norio Sasaki said on May 24 the company would likely need ”a few more years” to win over buyers for the 39 reactors it hoped to sell worldwide by 2015. 

Despite a meltdown that has turned much of Fukushima prefecture into a wasteland, Sasaki said Toshiba will try to convince the world that nuclear energy is safe. ”We cannot pursue our strategy if opposition to nuclear energy spreads worldwide.” Toshiba’s current plans aim to double sales of nuclear technology to 1 trillion yen (US$12 billion) for fiscal 2015. “Uncertainties lie ahead, but we will do the best we can.” 

Toshiba, which calls nuclear plants part of its ”social infrastructure business”, aims to generate 900 billion yen in sales, up 200 billion from last year’s forecast, on green business such as making ”environmentally friendly cities” out of memory chips, which are the company’s top moneymaker. 

In the past week, Toshiba announced it was buying a stake in a South Korean wind turbine maker, and spending 186 billion yen on buying out Landis+Gyr AG, a Swiss maker of electricity meters for smart-grids. “Some countries and companies may choose to shift to renewable energy following the latest accident,” Sasaki said. “We have to make clear that we are prepared to cater to such needs.” 

Toshiba is also releasing a new computer with an “eco button” that cuts power consumption by 24%. Osaka-based Sharp, which made the solar panels used on the Skylab in the 1970s, is offering a new TV that can last between three and four hours without being plugged in. 

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said it would boost supply of wind turbines and storage batteries, though nuclear energy is still important long term. Hitachi president Hiroaki Nakanishi said the company was developing technology to capture more than 90% of the carbon dioxide emitted from thermal power generators. 

Even pachinko parlors have dimmed lights and turned off escalators. But inside, the rows of machines are as obnoxiously bright and noisy as ever, an indication that Japan’s green shift might end up being short-lived window-dressing, as powerful players such as the nuclear industry dig in to protect their turf in the long term. 

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