To meet its 2050 carbon neutrality commitment, Japan must eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, as they account for nearly all of its emissions. Fortunately, Japan has everything it needs to become energy self-sufficient in the form of solar, wind, and pumped hydro energy storage.
Energy in Japan
Japan could generate all its electricity with wind and solar at $86/110 MWh, which is competitive with current market prices. This includes the transmission and storage costs needed to balance 100% renewable electricity. Japan could set an example to the world.
Most of Japan’s emissions could be eliminated well before 2050 by producing emission-free electricity from solar and wind power, and by electrifying transport, heat and industry. To achieve this, Japan’s current electricity consumption must be doubled.
Japan has huge and high-quality offshore wind resources. Japan could generate about 50 times more electricity than it currently consumes using offshore wind power from its exclusive economic zone. This means that Japan can be very selective about where it places its offshore wind farms to harvest the highest wind speeds and minimize cost and environmental impact.
Japan’s solar potential is also great. It will be able to produce four times its current consumption from rooftop solar panels that float on inland waterways and are used in conjunction with agriculture. Japan’s population of 125 million is projected to drop 18 percent to 102 million by 2050, which could free up 18 percent, or 8,000 km2, of its current agricultural land. This land alone would be enough to cover all of Japan’s energy needs with solar energy.
Large-scale electrical energy storage to support solar and wind power is a solved problem in the form of batteries (seconds to hours of storage) and pumped hydro energy storage (overnight and longer). The ANU Global Pumped Water Atlas shows 2,400 good sites in Japan with a combined storage potential of 53 TWh. Only a few dozen locations are needed to support a 100% renewable energy system.
Japan is lagging behind
Japan used to be the world leader in renewable energy. Unfortunately, Japan now lags far behind the pioneers in terms of annual per capita deployment of new renewable energy. The Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and Finland are installing solar and wind power five times faster (per capita) than Japan, and China, Spain, Germany, and the United States are installing solar and wind power twice as fast.
The Japanese government’s clean energy strategy interim report lacks clear recognition of the critical role of solar and wind in reducing global carbon emissions, instead promoting nuclear power, imported hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is hardly a good choice.
The world’s nuclear power capacity has remained static at around 400 GW since 2010. In 2022, the utilization rate of solar energy was 200 gigawatts, and it is growing rapidly every year. This is convincing evidence that nuclear power is not competitive with solar power.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has not achieved commercial success in the power industry. Solar and wind power already have a compelling economic advantage over fossil fuel generation without CCS, as evidenced by their dominance in the commissioning of new power plants. The electricity competitiveness of power plants using fossil fuels will further decrease if they are equipped with CCS due to the high capital costs and the reactive energy costs of CCS.
Importing pure hydrogen for energy production (for example from Australia) is expensive because about three-quarters of the energy is lost in compression, transportation, storage and conversion, tripling the actual energy costs. It is cheaper for Japan to produce its own electricity from the wind and the sun than to import pure hydrogen.
In 2023, approximately 10 million electric cars were sold, compared to 20,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles. Japan’s export car industry is at risk due to a lack of focus on developing competitive models for the booming electric car market.
Pathfinder countries in Northern Europe and Australia show that decarbonizing the electricity system with solar and wind power is simple. Japan needs to accelerate its deployment of wind and solar power tenfold to get rid of carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century.
With the right policies, Japan can look forward to a sustainable future where it no longer imports oil, coal, gas or uranium. Unlimited energy can be obtained from rooftop solar panels, solar power plants and offshore wind turbines. This provides a high level of energy independence and resilience in the face of a pandemic, war or trade disruption.
The key elements of industrial precursor chemicals, ammonia, plastics, synthetic jet fuel and many other materials are hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, sodium, chlorine and nitrogen. These are available everywhere from sea water and air. Japan’s chemical industry can be essentially self-sufficient, as the energy comes from domestic wind and solar energy.
Most buildings can have their own solar panels, energy storage, electrical facilities and water heating, as well as electric cars. This eliminates greenhouse emissions, car exhaust, smog, oil spills, coal power plant exhaust, ash pans, nuclear accidents and nuclear waste disposal. Japan can lock in cheap, clean and highly reliable continuous energy.
Old certainties about fossils are fading fast. The world is moving to solar and wind at the same rate that digital photography is moving to film cameras. I hope Japan doesn’t have its own Kodak moment.
Authors: Prof. Andrew Blakers (ANU) and Prof. Ricardo Rüther (UFSC)
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ISES, the International Solar Energy Society, is a UN-accredited membership organization founded in 1954. It works towards a world with 100% renewable energy for all, used efficiently and wisely.