Opinions - 15.03.2011 - 00:00 

Japan's nuclear future?

Prof. Dr. Rolf Wüstenhagen on what Japan can learn from the nuclear catastrophe and its own history of renewable energies.
Source: HSG Newsroom


14 March 2011. The challenges of a serious crisis constituted the starting point of Japan’s decades of efforts to attain a leading role in the field of renewable energies. The global oil crisis of the 1970s was a painful reminder to Japan, which is poor in raw material, that it should reduce its energy dependency.

Renewable energy types
In 1974, the then Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) launched the Sunshine Project, which aimed to commercialise solar energy and other renewable energy types. With the help of strategic investments in research and development, the Japanese managed in only two decades to cut the costs of solar cells by a factor of 65, from originally USD 350 per watt to just over five dollars per watt in 1994. In subsequent years, the transition from laboratory production to industrial mass production was systematically promoted, with the success of a further cost reduction by two thirds. At the same time, production capacities for solar cells were significantly extended, and Japanese electronics firms became world market leaders in this future technology. However, 2005 marked a turning point. 

Reorientation of Japan’s energy policy

At exactly the same time that countries such as Germany, Spain, the US and China, were preparing to give solar energy a break through government support and grid parity was beginning to appear within reach, the pioneering country in the Far East opted out and fully banked on nuclear energy. After the complete discontinuation of government incentives for the purchase of solar systems, firms like Sharp had to put up with a palpable drop in the domestic market. Subsequently, weights on the world market shifted; Sharp dropped from first to third place in the world ranking of solar cell producers, whereas the American firm, First Solar, and the Chinese company, Suntech, profited unchecked from the stormy growth of the solar market.

Solar renaissance in the land of the rising sun
In 2009, the once ambitious aims of the Japanese government’s solar roadmap were postponed far into the future: now, five to ten per cent of energy consumption was supposed to be covered by solar energy by 2050 instead of 2030. After an early technology leadership, Japan’s energy policy had lost the resolve to continue to invest in an extension of this future industry. Instead, the Japanese relied on a technology that promised lower costs in the short term but was associated with substantial risks – as has manifested itself now. Once the enormous challenges of today’s situation have begun to retreat into the background, the time will come for a reorientation of Japan’s energy policy. It would not be the first time in Japanese history that a serious crisis has marked the beginning of a success story.

photo: Photocase / Goodfield