Friday, June 22, 2012

Japan Feed In Tariff Regulations Finalized. Renewables Ready, Set, Go!

METI released its final feed-in-tariff regulations on Monday, June 17.

Based on the public announcement, there were no major changes from the preliminary regulations.

You can read (in Japanese) the METI response to over 5700 submitted comments.  (Use the link on the right hand side of this page to go to the renewable energy section of METI's website.)

The FIT comes into effect on July 1, 2012.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Grand Plans for Gas Pipelines

Yet another Nikkei Shimbun report, on June 13,  indicates that the METI "Natural Gas Shift Basic Infrastructure Specialist Committee" (my attempt at a translation) issued a report.  In light of the expected future global increase in gas supply, including from U.S. shale gas and other sources, there is a need to improve the Japanese network of gas pipelines and gas storage facilities.  METI wants to establish a basic policy this year on future facilities. 

The plan includes new pipelines from Yokohama to Aichi (near Nagoya), from Himeji (Hyogo) to Kita Kyushu, from Nagaoka (Niigata) to Saitama Prefecture, and also from Nagaoka to Shiga Prefecture.  There also is a plan to store gas by re-injecting it into depleted fields in Niigata near Nagaoka.

The government proposes that the cost of these pipelines be borne by the gas companies and consumers, but with government assistance on regulatory and tax matters to help get the pipelines built.  

Japan clearly needs to take advantage of what looks like many years, even decades, of future cheap natural gas around the world, if it is going to survive as an industrial power.  And Japan needs this kind of infrastructure if it is going to attract investment in gas cogeneration power plants that can help to fill the gap left by nuclear power -- which seems at best likely to decline gradually as the current plants go through a run off mode.

Electricity Rate Update

TEPCO announced on June 12, 2012 that it intends a 10% reduction in the fee it charges alternative electricity suppliers for use of its transmission lines.  Since 2008 these rates have been in the range of 2.25 to 4.24 yen per kWh, and will be cut to 1.99 to 3.89 yen per kWh.

Meanwhile, discussion continues on TEPCO's request for a 10-15% increase in residential rates.  It is now clear that the increase will not be in place by July, as TEPCO has hoped, and the earliest will be August or later.  Apparently one of the major issues in the deliberation over the TEPCO rate increase request is the treatment of Fukushima Daiichi Reactors 5 and 6, and the 4 more reactors at a facility 20+ kilometers to the south along the coastline, Fukushima Daini.  The head of the commission reviewing the rate increase request has noted that if there is no realistic chance those 6 reactors would restart, then they should not be included in the TEPCO rate base.  That would reduce TEPCO's recoverable costs by 90 billion yen per year (about $1.2 billion).

On the bright side, Nikkei also reports that in response in connection with the rate increase request, TEPCO has agreed to reduce its costs for introducing "smart meters" by 1.6 billion yen per year over 2012 to 2014, and to accomplish this by revising its TEPCO-specific standard for smart meters, allowing effective foreign participation in the bidding process for the contract, and thereby reducing the cost.  If they follow through, it would be a sign of hope.

Nuclear Policy Creeps Forward

This week, according to press reports, the legislation for a new, more independent 5-person nuclear safety regulatory board apparently moved forward.   The body will take on 800 staff from METI and the Science/Education Ministry, and those staff will in theory be prohibited from returning "home" -- or to any other governmental entity that has as one of its functions the promotion of nuclear power.

Apparently part of the compromise to get the LDP to join in the government's proposal is that the new legislation offers some ability to revisit a mandatory 40-year limit on operation of reactors.  The LDP had wanted this provision eliminated entirely, but a compromise instead allows the new regulatory board to revisit  whether such a policy is necessary.  So for the time being at least, this issue remains open.  (Maybe the utilities can avoid taking immediate huge write-offs on their 40+ year-old  nuclear plants -- to the extent not already fully depreciated -- since in theory these plants may yet generate electricity?)

Friday morning June 15's Nikkei Shimbun notes that the legislation will include provisions that delegate to the regulatory board certain details of response to a nuclear accident, removing these items from the political judgment of the Prime Minister.  This would include a decision on whether to use seawater to attempt to cool a reactor that had lost power -- the decision that Prime Minister Kan is said to have delayed on March 12, 2011 while asking whether the salt in seawater might risk reactor recriticality.  (Kan apparently knew just enough nuclear physics to be dangerous ... and TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi plant manager ignored the instruction and went ahead without yet further delay at this point.  But the anecdote lives on.)  I hope we never need to learn whether the new approach actually works better than the old.

A formal announcement regarding the government's favorable decision to restart Omi Reactors #3 and #4 this summer, is forthcoming any day.

Mega Solar Announcements

With the feed-in-tariff (FIT) regulations likely to be finalized in coming weeks and the FIT to come into effect on July 1, 2012, we are starting to see more announcements of mega solar (i.e. utility scale 1MW+) projects.  

This week, NTT announced that its property owning/managing subsidiary, NTT Facilities, plans over 60MW of solar PV projects by early 2015, using land it owns at over 20 sites around Japan.  NTT Facilities has been moving in this direction for some time.  It is doing systems integration and operation & maintenance business, and since at least 2006 has been involved with a NEDO-affiliated test/research mega solar facility in Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture, that continues to grow.

One of the largest projects announced earlier this year is the 70MW Kyocera, IHI, Mizuho project in Kagoshima, southern Kyushu.  Kyocera is one of the larger Japanese manufacturers of modules.  It has a long history in the business and was the #1 manufacturer in the world back in 1998, 1999.  And it claims a leading position in the commercial/industrial market in Japan.  Assuming they are following through on  previously announced investments, they would have module capacity of 1GW per year by March of 2013.  So they will have lots of product they need to push out the door -- with not too much to distinguish it from the products of other manufacturers -- and could probably use many more similar projects.

SOFTBANK, through its SB Energy subsidiary, is teaming with prefectural and local governments around Japan, and is planning a number of large projects.  The largest by far is a proposed 200MW plant in Hokkaido.  (Apparently SB wants to build a 340MW plant, but Hokkaido Electric can only accept 200MW given its current transmission network).  SB Energy's other announced projects are each less than 10MWs.  SB Energy also has established a testing center in Hokkaido that provides real time data to the public on performance of various manufacturers' proposed modules/systems.  

Likewise, about a week ago major real estate developer and owner Mori Trust announced plans for a mega solar project in Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture, on the site of its La Foret Shirakawa resort development,  that suspended operations following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  The project will initially have 2MW peak capacity, but potentially add an additional 8MW later.  I rode my bicycle within a mile of this site during Golden Week, and remember it as particularly beautiful countryside.   But it is difficult to get customers to buy resort condominiums when you need to spend too much time talking about cesium 134 and 137 contamination levels.  This area in south central Fukushima, though far outside the evacuation zones, got a a pretty significant dusting of contamination, as did northern Tochigi and Gunma prefectures.  Not good for second home values.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dynamic Pricing ... Finally

There have been lots of reports lately about attempts to limit peak electricity demand through dynamic pricing schemes.  These are well known in the rest of the world (our residential electric bill had such a scheme in Maryland almost 15 years ago) ... but have been absent from Japan.

Wow.  Japan really is entering the 21st century, or at least the latter part of the 20th century.  Maybe next Japan will introduce daylight savings time, and our dog will start waking up and asking to be let outside, fed and walked at 5:30AM, instead of 4:30AM?  That would be really nice, but I will not hold my breath.

In any event, both TEPCO and Kansai Electric (KEPCO) announced optional peak pricing plans ... but the plans were underwhelming, did not offer particularly steep off peak discounts, and the response has been dismal.  TEPCO has gotten 130 households to sign up, and KEPCO only 230 households, out of the tens of millions in these service areas.  Probably the 360 households are all childless working couples, who use no electricity at all during the "peak" hours at least 5-6 days a week, so the reduction in electricity consumption will be ... zero.  And the plan requires installation of meters that are actually able to measure consumption at specific times of day ... as opposed to the existing base of meters.

And nothing about any of the preceding efforts is "dynamic" -- just peak and off-peak.

Finally, today, a story in the Nikkei that one of the new electricity supply entrants (power producer and supplier or "PPS"), Ennet (新電力 エネット), which has the NTT group and Tokyo Gas as its lead shareholders, will introduce a summer peak pricing scheme to encourage conservation by its large scale customers.  (Ennet does not -- cannot -- serve residential customers, under the current regulatory regime).  It has actually signed up contracts for the new structure with major customers such as the Aoki menswear chain, Mitsukoshi/Isetan Department Stores, Oji Paper and various schools/universities.  There will be off peak, peak and middle pricing.

And provided that notice is given the evening before, there are two additional special peak pricing features.  (It is this advance notice that is the "dynamic" feature).

Under one plan, pricing on the off peak and middle periods will be reduced by several yen per kWh below normal, and during the 13:00-16:00 peak, pricing will soar to 3x normal -- around 50 yen per kWh!

The other alternative does not offer any discount for the off peak and middle peak hours, but will pay a rebate of around 15 yen per kWh by which consumption is reduced against a benchmark.

Ennet suggests the new plan will actually save customers money if they can make minor shifts in demand.  And it avoids a need to go and beg customers to cut peak demand ... the approach taken by the incumbent utilities.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Prospects for Geothermal Generation in Japan

At first glance, Japan would seem a prime candidate for widespread geothermal electricity generation.  The resource exists -- one of few types of energy where Japan's domestic resources can be rated as good-to-excellent.

And Japanese suppliers and contractors have even built some of the most successful geothermal generating stations in the world -- in leading jurisdictions such as New Zealand.

Until March 2011, however, there was little prospect for expansion.  First, went the common refrain, Japanese geothermal resources were focused in national park areas where development was prohibited.  Second, it is not possible to develop a geothermal plant without the consent of hot spring operators in the vicinity, who fear that their hot water resource will be damaged.  

Despite an increasingly good understanding of underground resources, and a strong basis to believe that hot spring resources are separate and distinct from the much deeper resources used for geothermal power generation, the fear continues.

In late 2011, headlines announced proposed regulatory reforms intended to allow geothermal plants to go forward in national park areas, with appropriate protections.  Likewise, other regulatory reforms were to cut the amount of time required to launch a geothermal plant from the current 15 years to ... only 10 years.

Ten years, to develop a renewable plant using relatively mature technology?  At that point, I lost interest.

Still, there was an announcement in March that the Ministry of Environment had followed through on the deregulation of parklands, and Idemitsu Kosen and a group of other large Japanese companies announced plans for a project in NW Fukushima Prefecture -- what better place, after all, to win public support for a renewable energy project?  The NW Fukushima project, in Bandai-Asahi National Park, was made possible by this very reform, with a 270MW plant envisaged, near several active volcanos and excellent geothermal resources.

In early April, Bloomberg reported that its own consulting arm believed the regulatory reforms and feed-in-tariff should revitalized geothermal power in Japan, with capacity nearly quadrupling from a current 530MW to over 2GW by the 2020s.

The regulatory reform is intended to allow some development in national park areas, with appropriate environmental protections and consent of any affected users of the geothermal resource.  Also, approval of the relevant prefectural government would be required.  (Fukushima Prefecture's support for the Idemitsu plan was widely reported).

Even better, the results of a Nikkei Shimbun survey were announced on June 3, 2012.  Nikkei asked 21 prefectures with favorable geothermal resources for their views on development.  Twelve of the prefectures agreed with the idea of pursuing geothermal development pro-actively, while 9 others were more cautious and indicated that "consent of the affected localities (地元) is a pre-condition".

Reality comes crashing down with reports today (June 5)  that the Fukushima headline project is now stalled.  The companies began to approach local residents in April, and "met with opposition from hot spring resort operators who are worried about how the development could affect spring water".  Apparently the nuclear accident, fear of power shortages, loss of tourists to Fukushima over the past year, and everything else, is not enough to shift long held views.  The pace of change in Japan is slow.  Very slow.

It would be nice if this were not the end of the story, and if something (other than massive pay-offs) would shift the opposition.  We shall see.

Japan Electric Vehicle Developments

Update October 2014:

One of the items mentioned below -- use of EV batteries for inexpensive on-grid electricity storage, is the subject of a new study in California, at UCLA/UC Berkeley law schools.  (The issues are primarily regulatory and legal, not technological, so this is a sensible sponsorship, contrary to initial impression).  This study posits "re use" of batteries taken from used EVs -- which should ease any concerns that automakers had about concurrent use. And it would, of course, increase EV resale value if the old, used battery were seen as having a high value.  See the study at the hyperlink.


Original Post 2012:

It seems like forever that the Toyota Prius has been the monthly #1 or #2 top selling car make/model in Japan.   And if you look around the streets of Tokyo, you see lots and lots of other hybrids -- from delivery trucks to minivans, SUVs, luxury sedans and mini-cars, not to mention Honda Insight and Fit hybrids -- with a few of the all electric Nissan Leafs mixed in.

Of course, any self-respecting middle class housewife in Tokyo with multiple small children needs a "dendo jitensha" -- a bicycle with rechargeable battery pack and small electric motor to help her get up the hills with a heavy load of groceries and two children on child seats, front and back.

And Japan has long been a leader in battery technologies, for automotive, lighting, consumer electronic and other uses.  The Sanyo (now Panasonic) Eneloop rechargeable NiMH batteries (AA and AAA) that I have really are far better than any others I have ever used.

So Japan is well-placed to play some kind of role in the expansion of electric vehicles, and implementation of "on grid" battery storage, and the reforms of the electicity industry now being discussed post-Fukushima present the perfect opportunity to accelerate related initiatives.

1.  May 27 newspapers report that an initiative is underway to promote hydrogen stations, in order to support next generation fuel cell cars.  The plan is to have 100 stations by the year 2015.

2.  The Japanese press report regularly on the discussions among automakers and regulators around the globe over competing standards for electric vehicle charging systems.  Japan (led by Nissan with its Leaf) is promoting its "CHAdeMO" standard, while Europe and the U.S. favor a "Combo" system that allows for fast DC charging as well as 3-phase and 1-phase AC charging, all using the same plug.  There is at least some stated desire in Japan to modify the standards to make them more compatible.  CHAdeMO actually has an installed base in Japan (and a few places elsewhere), but with the major US and European automakers supporting the Combo system, it may not be easy for CHAdeMO to carry the day without some kind of compromise, if still possible.  China, on the other hand, is said to be promoting a separate, incompatible standard.

Meanwhile, use of plugged-in electric vehicles for storage seems to be an ideal solution to many issues that arise from distributed generation in a deregulated electric system ... and with a large number of plug in hybrids and electric vehicles sitting around in parking lots, Japan just needs to implement the required charging and smart metering systems.  This seems to me like a much more cost effective use of rechargeable batteries than large in home rechargeable batteries; or the utility scale on-grid Li-Ion battery facilities that are also under discussion now in Japan but very high cost and some years away.

Energy conservation measures on the way

More energy conservation measures are being unveiled, as the summer heat approaches and Japan's nuclear reactors remain shut down -- with the the focus on reopening only two Kansai Electric-operated reactors by July.

About 10 days ago an interesting report about JR East's efforts to improve the efficiency of its commuter train networks.  Already, JR East generates a significant portion (57% as of 2010) of its own electricity from four generation facilities.

It has for many years used "regenerative braking" technology -- similar to automotive hybrids, but sending the electricity back onto the wires -- and this system is now installed on 88% of its trains.

But the current system only works when one train served by the same substation needs to draw power from a second train that is braking.  It does not work for uncrowded lines that have only a single train on a long section of track.  The system will be expanded, with addition of NiMH battery storage and upgraded IT/communications systems, so that regenerated energy can be used more widely across the netowrk and stored until needed.

The new IT/communication and storage network will also permit JR East to effectively utilize solar power that it plans to generate using installations on train station rooftops, rights of way, etc.

Private railways and the Tokyo Metro subway are studying similar measures, implementing LED lighting in train carriages, etc.

Another report in the May 31 newspapers notes that JR East also has developed a superconducting cable that it believes will be relatively easy to install on its network to replace existing cables.  The existing cables lose 10% of the electricity in the form of heat, whereas with the superconducting cable loss is near 0%.

Finally, consumers are buying large numbers of electric fans this year, as last -- for cooling at much lower energy consumption than air conditioning units.  Consumers also are installing LED lighting to replace incandescent and even compact flourescent bulbs.  A survey company reports that in one week in May, ceiling lighting fixtures sold in the Kanto/Tokyo area were 66% LED, while in Kansai/Osaka they were 71% LED.  Of course, LEDs now form a large share of aftermarket bulbs sold.

And under the new "cool biz" guidelines, you can wear Hawaiian shirts and sandals in the office to try to keep cool.

Japan Electricity Deregulatory Initiatives Under Discussion

According to the May 30, 2012 evening Nikkei, it is now possible to identify a number of METI initiatives under consideration for future deregulation the electricity market based on yet another METI advisory committee (電力システム改革専門委員会 -- roughly translates as the Electric System Reform Specialist Committee).  Ideas being pursued include the following:

To energize (no pun intended) an existing exchange where utilities and new entrants (so called "PPS" or "power producers and suppliers") can trade electricity futures, in order to stabilize electricity price and supply and support competitive entrants. Currently, futures transactions cover only 0.6% of retail electricity demand.

This reform involves restructuring the exchange, which is capitalized 80-90% with equity from the regional utilities, and whose directors are also mostly sent from the utilities.  The proposal is for METI to return the capital and replace directors at the exchange with non-utility executives. Also, end users may be permitted to trade electricity futures on the exchange, and utilities may be required to provide bids for purchase and sale of electricity to make sure that there is always some "bid" and "ask" price.

At least as important, the committee proposes to advance to detailed discussion over the appropriate way to separate transmission grid from the utilities, and make transmission a common facility that can be used by all market participants on fair, objective terms, in order to encourage new generation entrants.  METI is studying currently whether to propose a "legal" or just a "functional" separation of transmission -- whether I believe means whether transmission (1) will be spun off into an independent company, or (2) will just be shifted into a separate unit within the existing utility, that has a mandate to treat internal and external customers equally.

There is also discussion about deregulating the generation market and electricity distribution down to the level of retail/residential consumers -- whereas any competitive market is now limited to users above 50 kilowatts.

Japan Future Nuclear Mix -- The Debate Narrows Slightly

The last week in May saw a number of reports about deliberations of METI's Advisory Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  The Fundamental Issues Subcommittee issued a major report on December 20, 2011 flagging "Discussion Points" on the establishment of a new basic energy plan for Japan, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Each plan is assessed in terms of what kind of CO2 reductions can be achieved versus 1990 levels.

This subcommittee is, officially, where the "rethinking" is going on regarding Japanese energy policy.

Of course, the area of greatest focus, public attention, and indecision, is the future role of nuclear power.

The pre-Fukushima plan had looked to nuclear to grow to provide 45% of Japan's electricity needs by the year 2030, with renewables providing 20%, and a 31% reduction in CO2.

Over 24 meetings since last year, the subcommittee has not been able to decide on recommendations among 4 alternatives:

1. 0% nuclear, 35% renewables, 16% CO2 reduction.
2. 15% nuclear, 30% renewables, 20% reduction.
3. 20-25% nuclear, 25-30% renewables, 23% reduction.
4. 35% nuclear, 25% renewables, 28% reduction.

An additional option was that, based upon deregulation of electricity supplies, consumers can choose their power source (with an impact on the rate they pay) -- which I guess works if you can accurately assess surcharges to cover the externalities of each source.

Reports in the Nikkei Shimbun on May 27 and 29 suggest that the options have limited somewhat.

The 35% nuclear option is, effectively, off the table and out of the report.  (Did anyone think it would be achievable in practice?  or acceptable to the public?)

There are also numerous reports that the DPJ government, and especially Mr. Hosono, minister in charge of the response to the Fukushima accident, supports option #2 -- 15% nuclear power, 30% renewables, in the year 2030.  That plan provides for no construction of new nuclear plants, and that existing plants will not have their licenses renewed or extended beyond the initial 40 year operating period.  This option essentially would put nuclear power into a "run off" mode in Japan ... a very, very long run off.  This seems pretty realistic, though ultimately it is a decision for the Japanese people and their government.

While the debate over future mix continues, the mix as of May 2012 is nuclear 0%, renewables (mostly traditional hydro) less than 10%, and fossil fuels 90%.

Japan's "energy self sufficiency" in 2011 as reported by the IEA fell to 13%, the lowest since 1981, and it will probably be lower yet in 2012.

TEPCO Residential Rate Increase Likely to Be Pushed Back

According to reports in the Nikkei, the TEPCO rate increase for its regulated customers (small users -- mostly residential) is not likely to be approved in time for implementation on July 1.

The rate increase would need to be approved and announced by June 20 to meet a July 1 date, and that is not going to happen.  The panel reviewing the rate increase is still debating to what extent the ratepayers should bear the burden of TEPCO's costs in containing and paying compensation relating to the Fukushima crisis.  The panel is not likely to reach a conclusion before late June, at the earliest.

Separately, the Yomiuri notes that TEPCO's submission to METI for the panel showed that while regulated consumers comprise 38% of its electricity demand (the other 62% goes to large users), 91% of profit comes from the regulated customers, and 9% from large users.

Local Governments Pursue Renewable Energy

Many observers of Japanese politics see a lot more energy, initiative and creativity in SOME local governments than at the national level.  This is true in the response to the tsunami disaster -- where the governor of Miyagi Prefecture comes in for regular praise, for example.  It is also true in the energy area.

Softbank's solar PV strategy involves teaming with prefectures -- no doubt great partners in finding sites, moving through regulatory barriers, and making sure that the utilities cooperate on matters of interconnection.  The Tokyo government is making a major push into gas-fired generation and various other efforts to reduce its reliance on TEPCO.

A May 24, 2012 story in Yomiuri English version highlights the city of Wakkanai in Hokkaido, which now has a 5 Megawatt solar plant, as well as 74 large wind turbines -- covering almost 90 percent of the city's demand. Of course, the story does not note that this plant has been in operation since 2006, so it is nothing new.   There is a lot going on at the local government level in renewables right now around Japan, but we need to be careful about these "re-announcements".  The newspapers have figured out that the public is very interested in this topic, and so they have regular stories, with or without news, and with or without real analysis.

The article also mentions the IHI/Kyocera plan for a 70 megawatt solar PV installation in Kagoshima -- southern Kyushu.  And the need to add transmission capacity and improve the grid if more wind power capacity is to be installed in Hokkaido or NE Japan.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Limited Reactor Restart Looks Likely for Summer 2012

It has been about a month since the last functioning Japanese commercial nuclear reactor, in Hokkaido, shut down for their "regular maintenance."

Each reactor is shut down after 18 months of operation, on a regular schedule. And by custom/policy it is  not restarted by the operator until the prefecture and locality in which it sits have signed off.  This need for local sign-off, plus government-mandated "stress tests" and a review of tsunami and earthquake resistance standards, has meant that no reactors have restarted since the March, 2011 Fukushima disaster.

(As an aside, the requirement for shutdowns at 18-month intervals, and numerous sign-offs before restart, are one reason that even pre-March 2011, Japan had VERY low capacity utilization for its nuclear reactors, compared with the United States, France or other major developed economies -- I think something close to 60% in Japan vs 90% in the U.S. in recent years.  Ironically, low capacity utilization made it was necessary to build many more of reactors, dramatically increasing the cost of generation, and the risk of accidents such as Fukushima.)

In some parts of Japan where nuclear is a small part of the electric energy mix (Chubu region, for example), it has been relatively easy to replace nuclear generation by firing up dormant fossil fuel plants.  Even TEPCO (Tokyo Electric) expects to meet summer demand this year without mandatory conservation requirements, by using fossil fuel generation.  The result has been a huge increase in Japan's import of hydrocarbons, and a national swing from current account surplus to deficit.

But in Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and surrounding areas) and Kyushu, nuclear power is a huge part of the electric generation capacity mix, and is difficult ("difficult" in Japanese actually means "impossible") to replace on a short-term basis.  For peak usage in July and August 2012, Kansai predicts at least a 15% shortfall.  Kansai and Kyushu are implementing mandatory conservation measures for large users, requesting all users to cut consumption significantly, and arranging to purchase power from nearby regions.

This lack of supply, coupled with pre-existing high electricity prices that will only get higher, make the situation dire enough to influence factory relocation decisions and drive away employers.

Also, there is a hint of panic in the debate among establishment players -- the utilities, major suppliers, business groups, more conservative politicians, et al., over whether or not to restart reactors to deal with the 2012 summer peak demand.  Lurking in the background is a realization that, if no reactors restart for the 2012 summer peak, and somehow creative conservation measures manage to deal with the situation as they did in 2011, the argument will have been lost that reactor restarts are somehow essential, that the existing nuclear reactor base MUST be utilized, or that Japan will sink into chaos without nuclear power.

Unlike Prime Minister Kan, who favored getting rid of nuclear power in its entirety, as quickly as possible, Prime Minister Noda takes a much more nuanced approach, trying to navigate between public anti-nuclear sentiment, on the one hand, and demands of the business community and bureaucracy, on the other.

So no target has been set as of yet for Japan's target future electric generation mix of sources.  Nuclear could be 0%, or 30% of the mix, or somewhere in between.  At least the 45% option is off the table!  And Mr. Noda has followed through based on the results of the government "stress tests" clean bills of health, and has made every indication that the government will push ahead to restart two of the Kansai Electric reactors (Omi Nos 3 and 4) for this summer, as soon as the necessary arm-twisting is done at the local level.

It seemed likely from the start that Fukui Prefecture and the actual town where the Omi reactors sit would sign off.  Both are heavily dependent financially on the nuclear industry (a topic for another post) and have little option, unless it is to somehow use their current leverage to extract further benefits.  The sticking point has been the surrounding prefectures -- Kyoto, Shiga, and Osaka, whose governors have pushed hard for their own veto rights, since they are major population centers well within the danger zone should a Fukushima-like event occur again.  The Osaka Governor, Toru Hashimoto, is worth special focus, since he is a young, charismatic politician who leads an populist, insurgent group that may run a large number of candidates and try to gain significant national power in the next general election.

But even Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka governors must be alarmed at potential implications of summer shortages.  The latest news, reported in Friday's major Japanese newspapers, was that the Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka governors are likely to acquiesce in restart of the Omi reactors, but want it to be on a temporary basis, only to address this summer's demand.  So it seems very likely, as of today, that we will see a limited restart by July, in time to ease the summer peak demand in Kansai.

Of course, the legal framework does not provide any backing for a "temporary restart", and to allow it is to lose the battle for anyone who believes that Japan must eliminate nuclear power as soon as possible.  If the reactors really are not "safe", they should not restart, regardless of demand.  If they are "safe", then why shut them down in mid-September?  And if the Omi reactors are "safe" to restart, then why not others?  If the stress test results are sufficient for the Omi reactors, then why should we not consider and abide by the results for others as well?

So it seems likely that the debate of the future of nuclear power in Japan is not over.  It is just starting.

All that said, I think there are some boundaries we need to recognize as a practical matter.

The fallout (literal and figurative) of the Fukushima disaster will be with us for our lifetimes and beyond.  Just when you think life has returned to normal, you read that bamboo shoots from Chiba, just across the bay from Tokyo, were not allowed onto the market due to high cesium levels, or that cesium levels have continued to increase monthly in Tokyo Bay's silt at the month of the Arakawa river.  And the "clean up" effort to reduce radioactivity in towns nearer Fukushima ... will inevitably have mixed results, at very high cost.

So I think it is very safe to predict that the Japanese public will not accept construction of any new nuclear plants in the next 20 years, or perhaps much longer.

And the public will not accept the restart of any existing plants that have any identified special risk factors -- a newly discovered earthquake fault nearby, or aging components.

I predict that none of the 40+ year old reactors will restart or have their licenses extended/renewed.  The utilities should simply save their money and start focusing on decommissioning these (but they will not).

I predict that the Hamaoka reactor in Shizuoka will not likely restart anytime in the next 10 years -- despite all the ongoing expense to build a higher seawall against a future tsunami.  Again, money better spent elsewhere.

And, whatever the decision about future nuclear mix, it is clear that Japan needs huge efforts at each of

1. energy conservation (not just turning the thermostat up in summer and down in winter, but efforts that do not cause direct discomfort, please!);

2. new renewable generation -- solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, small hydro, etc.; and

3. new, efficient natural gas generation.

And these need to occur at the same time as a fundamental reform of its electric supply and distribution system -- deregulated markets, access to transmission and distribution for competitive suppliers, peak pricing regimes to shift demand, on-grid storage technologies using electric vehicles and other new battery technologies, smart meters, and much much more.

So if nuclear policy is still unclear, what needs to be done on other fronts is gradually coming into focus.

WSJ blog report here and article (subscription required) here.  Japan Times here.   Bloomberg report of up to a thousand anti-nuclear protesters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo Friday here.