ALTERNATIVE ENERGY IN JAPAN: BIOMASS, SEABED METHANE HYDRATE AND GARBAGE INCINERATORS

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY IN JAPAN

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wind power
The Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry (METI) estimates the worth of the renewable energy industry---which was 1 trillion yen in 2009---will increase to 10 trillion yen by 2020.In 2003, Japan got 0.39 percent of its electricity from alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and low-heat micro hydraulic power and around 1 percent in 2099. The government actively promotes alternative energy and in some cases provides generous funding for researchers and users. By 2011, Japanese utilities are required to generate 1.35 percent of the electricity using alternative sources such as wind power or biomass. The government provides subsidies equal to 80 percent of the first third of investments.
According to an energy plan approved in June 2010 the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar power and wind power, would be increased to 20 percent by 2030.

Already in 1974, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) announced its Sunshine Project for developing new energy technologies aimed at coping with the energy crisis and building a society free of environmental pollution. In 1993, this project underwent fundamental revisions that gave birth to the New Sunshine Program, the objective of which is to develop innovative technology to create sustainable growth while solving energy and environmental issues. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Renewable energy also costs more to generate than nuclear power. Generating one kilowatt-hour using nuclear power costs about 5 yen, while solar power requires 49 yen and wind power 9 yen to 14 yen. The government is facing many challenges to drastically expand the use of such renewable power.

Solar and Wind Energy, See Separate Article

Good Websites: Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Energy Conservation Center asiaeec-col.eccj.or ; More Efficient Solar Systems ecomall.com ; Solar Energy Use yamasa.org/acjs/network ;Sharp and Solar Power sharpusa.com/SolarElectricity ; Sanyo Solar Energy us.sanyo.com/solar ; Japan’s Wind Power Problem greentechmedia.com ; Eco Energy Business greenchipstocks.com ; Sharp and Solar Power sharpusa.com/SolarElectricity ; Sanyo Solar Energy us.sanyo.com/solar ; Virtual Center for Environmental Technology Exchange apec-vc.or.jp ; Geothermal Research Society of Japan nii.ac.jp/grsj ; New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization nedo.go.jp ; Energy Industry Sites: Oil and Gas Industry in Japan www.mbendi.com ; Federation of Electric Power Companies fepc.or.jp ;Japan Petrochemical Industry Association jpca.or.jp ; Tokyo Electric Power Co, TEPCO tepco.co.jp ; Osaka Gas osakagas.co.jp ; Tepco Electric Energy Museum tokyo-cci.or.jp

Links in this Website: OIL, COAL, NATURAL GAS AND ENERGY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; NUCLEAR ENERGY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SOLAR, WIND AND ALTERNATIVE ENERGY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; NATURAL RESOURCES AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; WATER IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; INFRASTRUCTURE AND PUBLIC WORKS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

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Hydro Power

Japan’s Energy Goals

In May 2011, Kyodo reported, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that Japan will dramatically change its energy policy to be less dependent on fossil fuel and nuclear power, unveiling a new target of generating 20 percent of its electricity from natural resources as soon as possible in the 2020s. ''Japan will now review its basic energy plan from scratch and is set to address new challenges,'' Kan said at a forum dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. [Source: Takuya Karube, Kyodo, May 25, 2011]

Kan said Japan will try to meet the new target, 10 years ahead of its original schedule, by undertaking ''drastic technological innovation'' in the wake of the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. ''We will mobilize all our resources to break the barrier to practical use due to such aspects as technology and costs, and we will elevate renewable energy to one of society's core energy sources,'' he said. [Ibid]

“To start with, Kan said Japan will try to reduce the cost of generating solar power to a third of the current level by 2020 and to one-sixth by 2030,” Kyodo reported. At present, renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind, only make up about 1 percent of Japan's total power supply. Even including the amount of energy generated by hydraulic plants, the ratio is around only 10 percent. Before the Fukushima accident, Japan relied on nuclear power for about 30 percent of its electricity and it had a plan to make atomic power account for 50 percent of its total power output by 2030.” [Ibid]

“By promoting power-saving measures more strongly than ever before, Kan said Japan's mid- and long-term energy policy up to now will be reconsidered. Kan, however, said nuclear energy will remain one of the pillars of Japanese energy policy -- by achieving the highest level of safety. In addition, Kan touched on Japan's ongoing efforts to rebuild the country from the worst natural catastrophe in its postwar history that obliterated northeastern coastal towns. Kan told global leaders at the OECD gathering that Japan's economy is resilient and will pull through what he has called the greatest difficulty experienced by it after World War II.” [Ibid]

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Hydro Power

Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Strengthens Push for Green Energy

Tetsu Joko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The nuclear crisis has seriously damaged the nation's ability to stably generate electricity. However, researchers and engineers are racking their brains to recover by producing more electricity from the sun, wind and other natural energy sources. Renewable energy has many advantages--resources are inexhaustible and it causes little damage to the environment. However, it is not flawless. The generating capacity of green energy is relatively low and dependent on weather conditions. [Source: Tetsu Joko, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 2011]

“Mark Lynas wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “According to figures “by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist environmental think tank, phasing out Japan's current nuclear generation capacity and replacing it with wind would require a 1.3-billion-acre wind farm, covering more than half the country's total land mass. Going for solar instead would require a similar land area, and would in economic terms cost the country more than a trillion dollars. [Source: Mark Lynas, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2011]

“While pushing for the restart of reactors that have passed safety checks, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiro Noda has pledged to gradually reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power. Japan is debating renewable energy targets of between 25 percent to 35 percent of total power generation by 2030, looking to Germany, which raised the proportion of renewables from 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent by 2010. [Ibid]

“Goshi Hosono, a minister in charge of Japan’s nuclear policy, told the The Asahi Shimbun that the task of mapping out the nation’s energy policy is daunting. “It takes a great deal of effort for the administration to settle on the overall energy policy,” he said. [Source: The Asahi Shimbun, July 30, 2012]

Government Alternative Energy Plans

Under a comprehensive renewable energy purchase system set up by the Japanese government in 2009, electric utilities are to purchase from homes or companies all of the solar, thermal or biomass electricity they produce, at high rate for set periods. The cost to purchase such electricity will be added as a surcharge to household and corporate bills.

If the purchase price is set at a high level, the number of households and companies that produce electricity is expected to increase, but at the same time it will significantly increase the burden on the public and the industrial sector. At current prices under the system household monthly electricity bill is expected to rise by only around 200 yen over 10 years. Conversely, the Japan Iron and Steel Foundation estimates the annual increased burden for the industrial sector will reach up to 126 billion yen.

Smart Grids and Power Company Energy Buy-Backs

Japan is a leader in “smart grid” power transmission, technology. A next-generation power network that will optimize supply to residential and other properties, smart girds are efficient power transmission networks that can handle fluctuating power generated by solar and wind power and other renewable sources. They are expected to encourage the use of renewable energy such as solar and wind because they give stability to the output of electricity supplied by such fluctuating natural power sources.

A bill submitted to the Diet in 2011 for a special measures law on renewable energy sources includes a system that obliges power firms to purchase electricity generated from clean energy sources such as solar and wind power. If the bill is passed, natural energy generation is expected to create huge business opportunities, even though the cost of generating such power is significantly higher than that of nuclear power generation, observers said.

Next-generation "smart grid" power transmission is considered integral to Japan's energy efficiency. By using a network utilizing information technology, the amount of residential and corporate electricity consumed can easily be checked and more efficiently managed. The government is also considering developing an energy storage system and expanding the use of light-emitting diode equipment.

The renewable energy special measures bill is intended to promote the use of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, by obliging utility firms to purchase electricity from such sources.The envisaged law would make it easier for individuals and corporations to make back the initial investment of installing power-generation facilities that use renewable energy. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 15, 2011]

Under the system envisaged in the bill, power firms will from fiscal 2012 be obliged to purchase all electricity generated from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass facilities that have been constructed by businesses and other organizations. The power firms will also be obliged to purchase surplus electricity generated by private households that have their own solar power generators.

The obligation on utilities to purchase renewable energy-derived electricity from companies will remain in effect for 15 to 20 years, and for 10 years for solar-generated electricity from private households. Power firms already purchase surplus electricity from private households with solar panels. But under the new system, the government-set purchase price will initially be raised to a much higher level, before being gradually lowered over time.

The increased costs imposed on power firms will be passed on to their customers in the form of higher bills for electricity consumption. According to government calculations, an average household's monthly electricity bill be 150 yen to 200 yen higher for 10 years following the new system's introduction.

The bill was approved at a Cabinet meeting in the morning of March 11, hours before the Great East Japan Earthquake hit. Originally, the main focus of the bill was to promote renewable-energy technology that does not emit greenhouse gases as a replacement for thermal power generation, to help slow global warming. However, after the outbreak of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the focus of the bill was changed to promote renewable energy as a replacement for nuclear power.

Marubeni and Google are developing a large-scale submarine power cable network to deliver power produced wind power stations to inland electricity system.

Japan Aims to Fix Prices of Renewable Energy to Make Them More Economically Viable

In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “An expert panel of the economy ministry has proposed fixing the purchase price of electricity generated by solar power at 42 yen per kilowatt-hour, as requested by renewable energy producers. A procurement cost calculation panel of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry proposed fixing purchase prices at 42 yen per kilowatt-hour for large-scale solar power, 23.1 yen for wind power and 27.3 yen for geothermal power. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 27, 2012]

“The panel compiled a draft proposal under the name of Chairman Kazuhiro Ueta, a professor at Kyoto University, that accepts most of the prices requested by renewable energy producers. The draft proposal was made as a new system that obliges electric power companies to purchase renewable energy at fixed prices will start in July. [Ibid]

“Fixing prices requested by renewable energy producers will likely boost the spread of renewable energy in Japan. However, it could raise electricity charges for consumers, since power companies will be obliged to buy electricity from renewable energy sources at relatively high prices. The central government estimated in December power generation costs from renewable energy sources. For example, the cost of electricity generated by a large-scale solar power facility would be from 30.1 yen to 45.8 yen per kilowatt-hour, and electricity generated through land-based wind power would cost from 9.9 yen to 17.3 yen per kilowatt-hour, according to the government. The economy ministry's panel calculated the proposed purchase prices by adding profit to generation costs after listening to the opinions of renewable energy producers. The panel said it gave special consideration to ensuring profits when it set the starting purchase prices, to boost the spread of renewable energy generation. [Ibid]

“The fixed price purchase system is based on the renewable energy special measures law that passed the Diet in August 2011. The law obliges electric power companies from July 2012 to buy power generated by solar, wind, geothermal, small water and biomass power plants for a certain period at fixed prices. The purchase prices will be reviewed every year based on generation cost data that energy producers submit to the ministry every six months. [Ibid]

“The fixed price purchase system gives advantages to new renewable energy producers because they can easily estimate their cost recovery and profits.The government plans to sharply raise the percentage of the nation's total electricity generated from renewable energy sources, which is only 1.2 percent at present. The purchase system is expected to build a foundation for that aim. [Ibid]

Hydropower in Japan

Japan has many fast-flowing rivers suitable for creating dams and hydropower. According to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, Japan has the potential to produce about 46 million kilowatts through harnessing water power, which includes undeveloped resources. However, 70 percent of the nation's hydroelectric power resources have already been developed. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 10, 2012]

“Most of the water resources that can generate large amounts of electricity have already been developed. However, since the Great East Japan Earthquake, hydroelectric power generation has been given a fresh look in many parts of the nation, and efforts are being made to find ways to make use of small-scale hydroelectric power generation in limited areas. Many of Japan's rivers have swift currents, which makes flood control difficult. However, this also means there are many suitable locations for hydroelectric plants. [Ibid]

“Sumino Seisakusho in Ena, Gifu Prefecture has developed a small hydro power generator with screws that have a larger surface area than conventional water turbines, enabling them to generate electricity even in slow-moving water. Sumino Seisakusho said it has received an increasing number of inquiries from local governments around the nation after the March 11 disaster. [Source: Tetsu Joko, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 2011]

Small Eco-Friendly Hydroelectric Projects

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A small building stands in the middle of Tateshina Heights in Nagano Prefecture, 1,200 meters above sea level, along the Kosaigawa river. The facility, which resembles a small warehouse, is a concrete water intake. The intake channels water from the river to an underground pipe, which carries it down a steep 65-meter-long slope. The water provides power to the generator of the Tateshina power station in Chino City in the prefecture. The small-scale hydroelectric power plant generates up to 260 kilowatts and sells about 500 households' worth of electricity to Chubu Electric Power Co. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 1, 2012]

“Mibugawa Electric Power Co., a subsidiary of Marubeni Corp., purchased an old power station built by the operators of local spa resorts in 1954 and completely renovated the facility, spending about 300 million yen. The unmanned power station went online in June 2011 and requires little maintenance. The power company expects to recover its initial investment in a decade. Unlike dams, it does not need to hold water in reserve, which means its impact on the environment is minimal. [Ibid]

“Mibugawa Electric started power generation operations at an agricultural irrigation channel in Hokuto City in Yamanashi Prefecture in March, 2012. "We'll increase the number of similar power stations to 30 by 2020 in the Tohoku, Hokuriku and Chubu regions," said Eiichi Onishi, chief of the administration department of the power company. In Tochigi Prefecture, Nomura Agri Planning & Advisory Co., an agricultural consultancy in the Nomura Securities Co. group, has been promoting small-scale hydroelectric power generation. In cooperation with the prefectural government, it is in the process of establishing a company to generate electricity using agricultural irrigation channels. It aims at starting operations at about 100 plants between 2013 and 2014. [Ibid]

“Many of Japan's rivers have swift currents, which makes flood control difficult. However, this also means there are many suitable locations for hydroelectric plants. According to the Environment Ministry, these small- and medium-scale hydroelectric stations, with an output capacity of less than 30,000 kilowatts each, have the potential to produce about 14 million kilowatts of electricity, more than that of 10 nuclear power reactors. The small power stations are operating at a favorable time, as all electricity they generate will be purchased by major electric power utilities under the special measures law for renewable energy sources that will take effect in July. [Ibid]

New Alternative Energy Technologies

Tokyo Gas and Nippon Oil have produced a household fuel cell that creates electricity by mixing hydrogen extracted from gas or kerosene with oxygen. The heat created as a by-product can used to heat the home or heat water. Carbon dioxide emissions are 30 to 40 percent less than a house with conventional electricity and gas-fired systems. The only problem is the price for the unit: about $30,000.

Japan is studying the use of an ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) system. The system uses sea water from the surface to vaporize liquid ammonia that drives power-generating turbines. The steam is cooled with low-temperature water pumped from ocean depths. For the system to work you need a place with large difference between water temperatures at different depths. Japan is also studying capturing “ice energy.”

In the city of Kitakyushu, steel plants collect excess hydrogen produced making steel and send it on a 1.2-kilometer-long, 5- to 10-centimeter-thick pipe to places that generate electricity using next-generation fuel cells. In 2008, a panel about two-meters square was installed in Tokyo’s busy Shibuya ward that generated electricity every time someone walked on it. The panel was developed by a venture called Sound Power. The electricity was used to illuminate Christmas lights.

Ocean-Based Alternative Energy

In May 2012, Jiji Press reported: “A government panel has mapped out plans to promote the use of ocean energy, such as wind and waves, as part of the country's efforts to introduce renewable energy sources. The panel emphasized that it is necessary to put into practical use power generation technologies using the ocean's energy when the government is reviewing energy policy following the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Beginning in fiscal 2013, the government will select areas to conduct power generation tests using ocean energy, according to the panel headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. In addition, necessary legislation for commercial power generation will be pursued, the panel said. [Source: Jiji Press, May 26, 2012]

The Japanese government plans to build an offshore power plant in 2012 with commercialization of the technology beginning in 2016. The plants will harness: 1) wave energy to turn electricity-generating turbines or propellers; and 2) thermal energy through the transfer of heat between surface water and cooler deep water, using heat to vaporize a fluid with a low boiling point such as ammonia to turn a turbine.

Japan is a leader in developing ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC)---a technology that harnesses thermal energy from the sea to generate electricity and convert seawater into fresh water and also collects lithium from the aea. At this juncture the technology is not yet cost efficient but is getting there.

In August 2010, researchers from Tohoku University and Tohuko Electric Power Co. said they had developed technology to efficiently generated bioethanol for seaweed such as kelp. grapes.

Tuna-Inspired Wave Power Station

Taizan Emura wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “A project under way in the Seto Inland Sea aims to generate huge amounts of electricity from the energy of water currents, using streamlined turbines shaped like a tuna. Kiyomi Suzuki, president of the Hyogo Prefecture firm Nova Energy Co., sailed around the world in his former career as a ship captain and is taking a hands-on approach to leading the project.” "Whenever I saw a tanker in the Persian Gulf, I had a sense of crisis about Japan's reliance on imported energy," Suzuki said. [Source: Taizan Emura, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 216, 2011]

The principle of tidal power generation is the same as that of hydroelectric power generation: Moving water rotates turbines that are connected to an electricity generator. Tidal power electricity generation projects pursued by other countries, such as Britain and South Korea, have been troubled by frequent occurrences of debris, such as driftwood and fishing nets, jamming or breaking turbine propellers.

Suzuki realized the problem was due to the fixed position of the turbines--if they were able to move freely and follow changes in the direction of the current, debris would wash past the turbines, rather than becoming lodged in their propellers. "There are many obstacles in the sea," Suzuki said. "But the correct design can effectively deal with them." Under Nova Energy's design, turbines are connected to electricity generators by a system of rotating axle joints. This enables a turbine to move on both vertical and horizontal axes, so that its body is always in line with the flow of the current.

The design is ideal for the Seto Inland Sea, where the currents of up to 20 kph do not run in a uniform direction, because of the many small islands within its waters. Ocean currents, on the other hand, have a continuous, unidirectional flow. The design, which is expected to have no negative impact on the marine ecosystem, may be included in plans for marine power plants being drawn up by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

Suzuki established Nova Energy in 2007, nine years after he quit his job as captain of a cargo vessel, to put his ideas for improved turbines into action. He conducted extensive tests of different designs in a water tank and in 2008, using 1.2-meter-long propellers made of light but strong reinforced plastic, he succeeded in generating electricity at a rate of 200 watts. The rotating-axle system proved to be a success--the turbines changed position to follow changes in the current, and were untroubled by passing debris.

Research into hydrodynamics by Prof. Deog Hee Doh of Korea Maritime University, who studied at the University of Tokyo, provided Suzuki's efforts with a great boost. By applying Deog's research, Suzuki found that power-generation efficiency increased by 30 percent by using turbines modeled on the distinctive, streamlined shape of tuna. The firm is currently experimenting with turbines equipped with six-meter-long propellers in the Akashi Strait in the Seto Inland Sea. The aim is to achieve a production capacity of more than five kilowatts.

The Environment Ministry has commissioned the project to develop technology aimed at addressing global warming, and will provide 114 million yen in subsidies. Nova Energy plans to build a turbine with a 14-meter-long propeller by the end of this fiscal year, with a view to eventually developing a 25-meter-long model.The company has also set a goal of building a power station in the open sea, using large-propeller turbines to capture the energy of ocean currents, which it believes could be an attractive alternative to nuclear power. "We'll be able to build a large electric power plant with generation capacity of 1.6 million kilowatts, the equivalent of a large nuclear power station, for half the cost of building a nuclear power plant," Suzuki predicted.

Seabed Methane Hydrate and Japan

Seabed methane hydrate is seen as a major energy source in the future. A crystalline compound formed by water and methane gas, methane hydrate is an ice-like substance consisting of crystallized methane gas molecules trapped in water. It is found mainly under deep seabed and permafrost layers, where temperatures are low and pressure is high. The substance contains 160 to 170 cubic meters of methane gas per cubic meter. The gas is usually solid, yet it is also unstable and evaporates easily, making drilling difficult.

Like ice that burns, methane hydrate is a crystal structure of methane gas surrounded by water molecules held together by freezing temperatures and extreme pressure. Separating the water and methane yields methane gas. There is more methane hydrate than all the world’s oil, natural gas and coal combined but it has yet to be exploited as an energy source because it is expensive to extract from the places it is found: the Arctic permafrost and deep ocean sediments. It exists under high pressures and very low temperatures. During the drilling process it is necessary to closely survey geological conditions before deciding where to drill. But methane hydrate is very volatile.The biggest problem, is extracting it without heating it up. Drilling, for example, produces heat that causes it to disappear.

By one estimate there is enough methane hydrate to supply all of Japan’s natural gas need for 90 years. Japan spends $120 million a year on methane hydrate research. Drill ships probe the seabed for reserves in waters off Japan. Japan is also looking a ways to claim the rights to areas that extend outside their territorial limits. Scientists also believe huge quantities of methane hydrate are to be found in North America and under the sea near India.Many countries are increasing moves to exploit methane hydrate, as the natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than oil and coal.China plans to conduct research in the South China Sea on methane hydrate as an energy resource in spring. [Ibid]

“Scientists estimate the methane hydrate reserve in the sea area from off Shizuoka Prefecture to Wakayama Prefecture is equivalent to about 11 years' worth of liquefied natural gas imports. More exploration in other areas could lead to more large methane hydrate finds. But again, the major problems are the time and money involved in developing the mining technology and extracting the fuel. Although the government has stated it aims to establish technology for commercial use by fiscal 2018, actual commercial production would take longer. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2012]

“The government hopes to lower the mining costs by utilizing existing technologies, such as those used in oil drilling, and other means. JOGMEC successfully achieved continuous production, considered essential for commercial operations, in a ground production experiment in Canada in fiscal 2007 and 2008. In the trial run, 13,000 cubic meters of gas was produced in six days. Next, JOGMEC hopes to achieve continuous production for several weeks in a deep-sea experiment next year. Success in this trial would be a major step toward commercial production, and Japan's production methods could become the global standard. [Ibid]

“We have methane hydrate reserves close to Japan, which is very significant. We need to succeed in underwater production to pave the way for using this resource," said Yoshihiro Nakatsuka, deputy head of JOGMEC's methane hydrate development division. [Ibid]

Drilling for Methane Hydrate in Waters off Japan

In March 2011, the government -backed natural resource exploration agency launched a 6,100-ton ship to search for rare metals, methane hydrate and other resources in the seabed. The 118-foot-long vessel, named the Hakurei, has on-board and seabed-seating drilling equipment. In January 2011, Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, began exploring for methane hydrate in coastal waters is the “Chikyu” research vessel, capable of drilling to depths below the surface of 400 meters in waters 700 meters to 1,000 meters deep.

“In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) has drilled wells for measurement and mining, and plans to start production of methane gas early next year. If full-scale underwater production near Japan become a reality, gas could be directly supplied to domestic facilities via pipelines. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2012]

In February 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Work toward prospective drilling for methane hydrate began at sea about 70 kilometers off Atsumi Peninsula, Aichi Prefecture.The operation marks the first-ever attempt to drill into the ocean floor for the energy source.Should the commercialization of an underwater methane hydrate well be realized, it could greatly contribute to solving Japan's natural resource problem, as the country currently depends on imports for energy resources such as natural gas. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 15, 2012]

“The Chikyu,an 56,700-ton deep-sea drilling vessel, started drilling in an undersea methane hydrate-bearing layer extends from Shizuoka Prefecture to Wakayama Prefecture. It is estimated the layer contains 1.1 trillion cubic meters of methane hydrate reserves, the equivalent of 13 years of domestic natural gas consumption according to Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation. The government said the test drilling will be done 70 to 80 kilometers off Aichi prefecture's Atsumi Peninsula, which is inside Japan's exclusive economic zone. Because the figure is equivalent to about a dozen years of national natural gas consumption, the government decided to go ahead with the test drilling. The government earmarked 8.9 billion yen of related funds for the project in its fiscal 2011 budget. The government also plans to conduct conduct experiments in methane gas production and evaluate the efficiency of certain drilling production methods when water and gas are separated. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 20, 2011]

“The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has consigned the test-drilling work to the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), which will play a leading role in the project. The test drilling involves lowering a pipe from a ship to 800 to 1,000 meters below the sea surface. The pipe will then be inserted into a layer of the seabed 400 to 500 meters underground containing methane hydrate. The government aims to finish examining the project's profitability and other factors by fiscal 2018 to conclude whether commercial production of methane hydrate is possible. Japan, together with Canada and other countries, has conducted test drilling of methane hydrate in two locations, including Alaska, since fiscal 2001. [Ibid]

“In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported the Chikyu set a record for the deepest undersea research drill, reaching a depth of 7,740 meters in waters off Miyagi Prefecture, the agency said, breaking the record of 7,049.5 meters set by a U.S. vessel in the Mariana Trench in 1978. The Chikyu was at anchor about 220 kilometers off Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, to research the focal regions on the seabed around the Japan Trench, which is believed to have generated huge tsunami on March 11 last year. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 29, 2012]

Biomass in Japan

The Japanese have had great hopes that they could use biomass to meet a significant portion of their energy needs with biomass. A 2009 white paper recommended burning wood from trees cut down to thin forests as means of reducing carbon dioxide and providing timber companies with revenues. Burning trees produces less carbon dioxide than burning coal or oil.

However, biomass power plants in Japan are struggling because of a shortage of thinned wood and chips. This is occurring as trees and bushes are left to rot in the forest because of the expense of collecting and transporting it is prohibitively high. In 2009, a third of biomass plants were forces to cease operations because of the shortage.

Many local governments are trying to get the most out of biomass sources’such as livestock dung, farmer and forestry waste, sewage sludge, garbage---as they can, Much of it is converted into methane gas used in power plants. There are also plans for to make plants that get power directly from burning garbage. A garbage processing center in Hokkaido gets all of its electricity from methane derived from garbage-eating bacteria. Before the technology can be widely utilized there are a number of technical problems that have to be overcome. One problem is the smell. Another is removing plastic material from garbage which can cause machines to break down.

Coffee Grounds and Power-Generating Garbage Incinerators

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported in June 2011, “Power generation using heat produced from garbage incineration is increasing as an alternative energy source to offset the expected electricity shortages due to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The local governments of Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya plan to increase electricity output using heat from waste incinerators during this summer's peak periods of electricity consumption. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 17, 2011]

“The total electricity output at the 20 garbage disposal plants operated by Clean Association of Tokyo 23 is about 250,000 kilowatts. This figure is equivalent to the output of a midsize thermal power plant. Actual power output from the plants has been about half of the figure and the plants themselves consume electricity.” [Ibid]

“The plants will also raise electricity output during daytime hours when demand increases by reducing the quantity of garbage thrown into incinerators at night and increasing the amount during the day. The plants will also reduce in-house electricity consumption by halting electric-powered facilities used to melt ashes to reduce energy consumption between July and September. Instead, the plants will use chemicals to melt ashes.” [Ibid]

“According to the Environment Ministry, the total electricity output capacity of garbage incinerators at local governments nationwide was 1,673,000 kilowatts as of the end of fiscal 2009. Though the figure is equivalent to the output of two nuclear power reactors, the actual output from the waste disposal plants has been about half of their capacity.As power generation is less efficient if noncombustible garbage is included, the Clean Association of Tokyo 23 has asked citizens to sort garbage with greater care.” [Ibid]

The Yomiuri Shimbun also reported, “Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. is planning to use coffee grounds purchased from beverage companies to use as biomass fuel in a thermal power plant at its Kashima Steel Works, according to sources at the company. The company plans to buy as much as 12,000 tons of coffee grounds a year from beverage makers, the sources said. The spent beans will be mixed with coal at a 1:99 ratio after being delivered to the power plant at the steelworks in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 3, 2011]

“According to the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, Sumitomo Metal's project will be the first time a large power generation facility has used coffee grounds as fuel. Coffee grounds burn easily but give off less heat than coal, which is why so much more coal than coffee is used in the mix. Coffee grounds are plant matter and emit CO2 when burned. However, since the CO2 released when the grounds are burned was initially absorbed by the plants from the atmosphere, there is no net change in the amount of CO2 in the environment. According to the sources, Sumitomo Metal will reduce its CO2 emissions by 7,000 tons a year by using coffee grounds at the thermal plant, the same as generated annually by about 1,500 households.” [Ibid]

“Sumitomo Metal sells the electricity generated at its plant to Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken nuclear power station. The plant has a capacity of 470 megawatts, enough to supply all the households in Ibaraki Prefecture. Besides compost, there are few other uses for coffee grounds. A beverage maker said the firm basically gives the grounds away. Sumitomo Metal also expects its use of coffee grounds to reduce power generation costs. [Ibid]

Efforts to develop a garbage fuel have been less than successful, Potential users---private factories’say it so low in quality that the factories can’t even be paid to use it. In addition to that garbage fuel costs twice as much to make as simply incinerating it.

Biofuel in Japan

Biofuel doesn’t have much potential in Japan, namely because there is so little agriculture land. But that doesn’t stop the Japanese from trying. Scientists are exploring ways to produce ethanol from cellulose and other plant fibers in straw and scrap wood. A tofu company is experimenting with mass-producing bio-diesel from discarded cooking oil. Indy cars using biofuels reached 350 kph at am Indy car race in Japan.

The government is promoting using surplus sugar beets, substandard wheat and rice normally used for livestock feed for biofuel and growing rice for bio-fuel in fallow fields (which make up 30 percent of the usable rice paddies in Japan). To grow the kind of rice used in biofuel one merely has to throw rice seeds into paddies filled with water. The key here is producing rice with minimal labor costs. The Bikkuri Donkey restaurant chain generates energy using a mixture of wood pellets from fallen trees and construction materials mixed biogas made from garbage and kitchen waste.

Japan is exploring ways to make bioethanol from wood, grass leaves’something other than grain. Nippon Oil, Toyota and the Malaysian state-run oil company Petronas are working together to create a biofuel made from palm oil. Toyota is growing jatropha on Philippines banana plantations to produce biofuel. Some schools in Japan are experimenting with turning leftover lunch into biofuel.

Jatropha, a plant native to Central and South America, is being raised in Japan as a biofuel source. Jatropha is a deciduous tree that grows to a height of three meters. Fuel is made for oil squeezed from its poisonous plum-size fruit. The plant is very durable and can be raised on arid lands and depleted soils.

A company in Gifu has developed technology to make high-grade bioethanol from grass and weeds Tokyo Gas has successfully produced hydrogen from weeds. The technology may be used someday in generators or fuel cells. About 100 kilograms of weeds is necessary to generate enough electricity to keep an average family going for one day.

In Niigata Prefecture, researchers are experimenting with making bioethanol from rice cultivated in fallow plots of farmland and mixing it with gasoline. The variety of rice used---Hokuriku No, 193---is normally used to make cattle feed. Some worry the cost of producing the fuel is higher than the value of the energy it provides.

In January 2009, Prof. Junicho Takahashi of the Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine said they had discovered a way to produce hydrogen---which can be used to power fuel cells---from cattle dung and urine, using a process can be used with human waste and doesn’t produce any carbon dioxide.

In the process, cattle dung and urine are fermented in an oxygen-free environment to extract ammonia which is then electrolyzed into hydrogen and nitrogen. They hydrogen is then fed into a fuel cell along oxygen, generating a reaction that produces electricity. In an experiment 0.2 watts of electricity was created with 20 kilograms of cattle waste. With improved efficiency Takahashi estimates that seven tons of cattle waste---the amount produced daily at a cattle farm---can produce enough electricity to power an average household for three days.

Image Sources: TEPCO, Osaka Gas, Japan Nuclear Power Program, Ray Kinnane, Sanyo, Sharp

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated October 2012

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