It's hard to put it any more delicately. Japan's decision to turn its back on nuclear power and ditch plans to build 14 more reactors puts the country in a pungent puddle without a paddle.
Japan's options are few and far between; its infrastructure will make it nearly impossible to scale up renewable energy. That leaves imports of fossil fuels, which will make Japan a little poorer and a lot dirtier. In other words, Japan is in trouble.
Nuclear power was in many ways the perfect solution for Japan, as it allowed the country both to reduce emissions and limit its dependence on imports. Today, Japan gets about 29 percent of its electricity supply from nuclear power, and until this week, had planned to build 14 more reactors as part of its goal to reach 50 percent by 2030.
The power capacity lost by retiring old plants and canceling the 14 new ones would be about 399 billion kilowatt-hours by 2030, according to the Breakthrough Institute. To replace that lost generation would require a nearly 49-fold increase in electricity generated by wind, solar and geothermal. Even if Japan decided to take on this incredibly impractical goal, it wouldn't get very far because of its FUBAR electrical grid.
The cost of fossil fuels
Japan will likely turn to imported coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) -- an energy source on which it already relies heavily -- in the short term. Japan has already made some big steps in this direction; it revamped its energy infrastructure after a 2007 earthquake exposed its over-reliance on nukes and prompted a turn to LNG.
Now Japan is the world's biggest LNG importer, a change that turned the global market on its head. Other Asian nations have followed and suit, and major oil and gas companies like Chevron (CVX) and Exxon (XOM) have seized the opportunity have invested heavily in big regional LNG projects.
Greater LNG use may be great for companies like Chevron and Exxon. But it will be costly for Japan. LNG plants cost about $60.5 billion apiece. And Japan's annual LNG bill would be about $27 billion if it turned solely to natural gas-fired power generation, according to recent analysis from Jesse Jenkins, director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute. Japan's CO2 emissions would rise by 189 million tons, representing 15 percent of its current emissions. The results would be even worse if Japan turned to coal-fired plants.
What about renewable energy?
Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said renewable power and conservation will become key pieces of the country's long-term energy policy. This will be no small or cheap task. In 2009, about 2.4 percent of Japan's electricity was generated from renewable energy. Japan would have to increase electricity generated from renewable energy to 35 percent by 2030 to fill the void left by its scrapped nuclear plans.
Japan will make a go of it despite the challenges with geothermal, solar and wind as its primary renewable energy sources. There are hurdles to all three.
Japan's electricity market is divided into 10 regional companies that are highly protective of their fiefdoms and are unwilling to trade electricity. Japan not only doesn't have a single national grid, it has a lack of grid connections. This has dampened the prospects of wind power considerably.
The best wind power sites are located in remote areas in the north and south of Japan where grid capacity is relatively limited, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. Electricity demand, by contrast, is concentrated in the country's center. It will take years and considerable investment -- as well as a willingness from the utilities -- to improve the grid to be carry power generated by wind in the north to Japan's biggest cities.
Japan ranks third in the world for untapped geothermal potential. But there are significant challenges including the massive up-front costs associated with building the plants. It's also become a bit of a NIMBY issue. Japan's 28,000 onsen -- or hot springs -- are popular and revered attractions in a country with little open space. Geothermal plants, which would be located in the same volcanically active areas that help create the hot springs, would certainly muddy up the view.
Japan's federal policy, specifically its residential subsidy program that began in 1994, drove the expansion of the photovoltaic market, according to the Solar Electric Power Association. But those incentives dried up in 2006 and since then other markets in Europe have eclipsed Japan.
Once again, a huge hurdle for solar will be cooperation from utilities. Right now, nearly 90 percent of Japan's solar capacity is residential. If the country is going to come close to generating enough electricity from renewable sources like solar, the utilities will have to start building large-scale solar projects.