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Japan's Clean-Energy Role

Sho Beppu

Dec. 2, 2015

The UN Conference on Climate Change is in its third days. We look at what Japan is doing to cut greenhouse gas emissions and how it's helping other countries move to clean energy.

I think it's fair to say that most countries gathered here are serious about tackling climate change. US President Barack Obama conveyed this commitment on Monday by speaking well beyond his allocated 3 minutes. He also acknowledged his country's responsibility as the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe read the following statement at the conference:

"We will enrich the livelihood of the world's people while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We can take geothermal energy from under the surface of the Earth and deliver clean electricity to people. We can provide light produced with solar power in places that aren't on the electrical grid. There are many such areas where Japanese companies have long been active and have developed skills. I am confident that we can be of great help to all of you."

One place where Japan is playing an active role in developing clean energy is Kenya. Large amounts of hot magma beneath East Africa's Great Rift Valley make the area ideal for geothermal power plants. A public-sector utility recently began operating such a facility in the valley.

The Japanese government provided loans worth about $240 million for the project and Toshiba supplied high-performance steam turbines. Project organizers hope it will help Kenya cope with the serious electricity shortages it's experiencing as the economy grows.

Japan is promoting innovative technologies as a way to fight climate change without slowing growth. The government is working on a strategy that focuses on promising R&D; activities in the clean-energy field.

Japan hopes to become the global leader in developing hydrogen technologies. Toyota Motor began selling the world’s first commercial fuel-cell car last year. It’s powered by energy generated by the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen and emits no carbon dioxide.

Japan now has more than a dozen hydrogen fueling stations and the government plans to boost the use of hydrogen to create a CO2-free society.


Sho Beppu with Yoichiro Tateiwa

Sho Beppu was joined by NHK World's chief correspondent, Yoichiro Tateiwa.

Beppu: What can you tell us about Japan's role at this conference?

Tateiwa: You mentioned earlier the concept of "common but differentiated responsibilities." Developing countries that want to reduce carbon emissions say they need financial and technical backing, and that can only come from richer nations. So in that sense, Abe's announcement of a package of support measures is a step in the right direction.

Beppu: So Japan will be helping other countries, but what about its own emission targets?

Tateiwa: Japan is of course under pressure to lead by example, but the goals announced ahead of this conference haven't impressed the international community. The government says it wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2030. But the baseline for that is 2013, a year during which Japan relied heavily on fossil fuels because most of its nuclear plants were offline following the Fukushima Daiichi accident. So many experts believe Japan's position is not ambitious enough. According to the environment ministry, Japan reduced its emissions by 3% between fiscal 2013 and 2014. Officials attributed the decrease to energy conservation efforts, and the use of renewables among households and the business sector.

Beppu: So things are moving in the right direction.

Tateiwa: Not necessarily so because there's an inconvenient truth. Many people in Japan think factories are primarily responsible for CO2 emissions. But the industrial sector represents about30 % of the country's total. Transportation accounts for about 20%. And more than 30% comes from households and businesses. Now here comes the inconvenient truth, the transportation and industrial sectors have seen a drop in their emissions. But CO2 from households and businesses increased by 8% over the last 10 years. In other words, ordinary people also have a big role to play in reducing Japan's carbon footprint.

There several initiatives are under way. Take a look at this report from Tokyo.


Can Japan Cut Emissions?

Can Japan Cut Emissions?

Ryo Asami

Chika Sato lives with her husband in a specially designed house in Yokohama, near Tokyo. "We're fully off the grid," she explains. "We generate all the power we're using."

Eight solar panels produce about 5 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day, which is enough for the couple. There are batteries to store excess energy. The system kicks in after dark and on rainy days when solar power is unavailable. Sato explains that the batteries can supply nine days of power.

The backup batteries are an integral part of power-self-sufficient homes. Usually a system this size costs about $60,000. Sato bought a used system from a friend for less than a third of the normal price. Not all home owners can afford the outlay.

"It's not easy to live with only the energy we generate," Sato says. "But I'm really thankful that nature provides the sunlight that allows us to create energy and live this way."

Some municipal governments have offered financial support to set up solar systems, but cost remains a problem. Only 2.5% of households have such systems in place.

Some are trying a new approach. Officials in Nakanojo, about 150 kilometers from Tokyo, devised a plan to make their town a center of renewable energy. And now it's the first town in Japan to generate its own electricity after municipality set up its own power company. It uses solar panels to supply electricity to 30 facilities, including the town office, school and sports center.

18,000 solar panels cover 8 hectares of land. The town sells excess power it gets during daylight hours to other places, and buys electricity for use during the night.

The Director of Nakanojo Electric Power General Foundation, Masao Yamamoto, explains "there are several natural energy sources where we live. One significant advantage our company offers is that it allows local people to use locally available energy instead of relying on large-scale power plants and grids for the masses."

One of the facilities using the new system is a nursing home, where a power outage could cause serious problems. Elderly residents wouldn't be able to take the summer heat if the air conditioners stopped running. "We weren't so sure in the beginning, but now we don't have any worries," says the home's sub-manager Rieko Kaneki. "But apart from that, we're really happy that all the changes have been smooth."

Ever since the town started using the system, it's been able to cut CO2 emissions. Real time data is posted on the power company's website, including the amount of power generated and the CO2 reductions.

Just two years into the project, the town has reduced its CO2 output by at least 3,500 tons, equivalent to the amount emitted by 1,500 vehicles in one year. Yamamoto says, "it would be great if localized power supply systems were developed as a means of utilizing renewable energy resources. I hope the government will put some systems in place to facilitate that, too."

The town wants to promote renewable energy even more, using wood-chip biomass and small hydro plants. Following Nakanojo's lead, five other municipal governments have launched their own power companies. But renewable energy, excluding hydro power, continues to make up less than 5% of Japan's energy mix.

Mika Ohbayashi, an expert an alternative energy, says many challenges must be overcome before it can really take root. "Nowadays, countries around the world have embraced natural energy as the logical solution," she explains. "But Japan hasn't reached that stage yet. We need to reform the power supply system to make it more efficient, boosting the efficiency of the energy system itself. In the process, we should work to introduce new renewable energy alternatives."

Ohbayashi says the Japanese government can do much more to promote renewable energy.


Sho Beppu live in Paris

Another source of renewable energy Japan has been focusing on is biomass, the burning of organic matter to produce electricity. One project involves a kind of wheat noodle popular in Japan. And it kills not two but three birds with one stone by addressing the problem of food waste, producing energy, and helping to grow the next crop of wheat.


Noodle Power

Noodle Power

Chikako Tanaka

Kagawa Prefecture is known as the place to eat udon in Japan. The signature style of the region, called "Sanuki udon," is firmer and chewier than varieties found in other areas. It's made from what once were two of the region's key products: salt and wheat, with a little soft local water.

The noodles are a major attraction for Kagawa natives as well as visitor. But high consumption means lots of waste. Scraps, leftovers and unsold noodles all mount up.

Businesses in Kagawa throw out an estimated 6,000 tons of udon every year. Masaaki Kagawa, the president of a noodle company, says he spends over $40,000 a year to incinerate waste. "It's a real shame to have so much waste," he says. "But there's not much we can do to avoid it."

The waste problem gave some engineers an idea. Chiyoda Manufacturing in Takamatsu City specializes in designing industrial machinery, and came up with an udon-fueled electrical generator. It sucks in about 4 tons of leftovers a day, and pumps out flammable biogas.

Workers throw in the noodles and other kinds of food waste. Water is added and it's all mashed up. The mixture is heated, so it ferments and generates biogas. The gas turns a turbine and generates electricity. Chiyoda sells the electricity to a local power company.

Plant manager Tetsuo Ozaki says "we made the equivalent $26,000 last year, and generated 75,000 kilowatt hours, using 300 tons of wasted food. And we were only in a trial phase, running at half capacity."

One expert says biomass accounts for less than 0.01 percent of all electricity generated in Japan, because people don't want to deal with the liquid byproducts. Central Environment Council Chairman Naohito Asano explains, "the process doesn't end when you extract the heat or energy. There's still waste you have to dispose of. And that extra step is deterring people."

The engineers at Chiyoda have come up with a solution for that problem, too. Their plant purifies and filters the liquid and turns it into two kinds of fertilizer. The plant manager explains, "after we make the liquid fertilizer, there's some solid matter left. We're using that to make solid fertilizer. Hopefully, we'll be able to leave no waste."

Some farmers are getting involved by testing the liquid fertilizer on a crop of wheat. When they harvest it in May, they'll use it to make udon. And the cycle will begin again.

The project is headed by a local group called the "Udon Total Recycling Consortium." The president of the group Tomio Sumada says "we're trying to work on making more eco-friendly activities. I know we can't do big things, but little by little we can make a change."

Environment Ministry figures suggest the new process kept 53 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air last year by recycling udon instead of simply burning it. Diverting food waste from incinerators can cut down on pollution and harness a renewable energy resource that doesn't depend on the weather.


Beppu: An interesting take on the power of Japanese noodles. But speaking of renewable energies, Japan was a world leader in solar power until the 1980s and it has since lost that status. What happened?

Tateiwa: Obviously the government has failed to promote renewable energies, which account for less than 5 percent of Japan's energy mix. So one of the biggest challenges right now is to move away from fossil fuels. An increasing number of households and businesses are building their own solar capacity, but the problem is public support for these initiatives is not sufficient.


People across the world are hoping the conference in Paris will produce a comprehensive and effective agreement to reduce carbon emissions. We heard world leaders underline the importance of a deal, and now it's time to see if they can turn their words into concrete action.

That wraps up our special live coverage of the UN Conference on Climate Change. Of course, Newsroom Tokyo will keep you up to date on the latest developments.