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Japan’s switch to coal-fired power problematic

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As a nation that relies on foreign energy resources, Japan needs to secure a stable supply of cheap electricity.

In the wake of the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, almost all nuclear reactors in the nation have been idled. Thermal power generation using coal, which is cheaper and more readily available than oil and other fossil fuels, is worth taking another look at.

As part of its management reconstruction, TEPCO aims to procure electricity from new coal-fired thermal power plants to be built by other companies.

Within the government, however, opinion on whether to promote the plan is divided. The economy, trade and industry ministry is in favour of the plan, while Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara appears to be against it. Under such circumstances, private businesses will be unable to freely undertake construction projects for coal-fired thermal plants without worry.

Considering how difficult it will be to build new nuclear power plants given the current situation, the government must put forth a policy to push forward with the continued use of coal-fired thermal power.

The biggest advantage of coal-fired thermal power generation is its low cost. According to estimations by a government expert panel, thermal power generation using coal costs 9.5 per kilowatt-hour, lower than the 10.7 per kWh for liquefied natural gas and 22.1 for oil.

One major drawback of relying on coal, however, is that it creates a relatively large amount of greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants are about twice that from LNG-fired plants.

Technological progress has been made in curbing CO2 emissions at coal-fired plants, but more ways to make up for such drawbacks must be found.

The environment ministry has put the brakes on constructing new coal-fired thermal plants based on its environmental assessment, a measure it considers necessary to deal with global warming.

Orix Corp. and Toshiba Corp. were forced to reexamine and scrap their coal-fired thermal plant projects in 2006, as coal was deemed to create too much carbon dioxide. The same happened to Nippon Kasei Chemical Co. in 2010. In fact, no new coal-fired thermal plant construction project has been approved in the past decade.

There are no definite standards set on permissible CO2 emission levels. Some observers have noted it is problematic that the environment ministry has arbitrarily discouraged the construction of new coal-fired plants.

Last week, the government’s advisory panel on regulatory reform announced it would study easing and clarifying the requirements for constructing new coal-fired plants. This is a reasonable step. Regulations that have effectively hampered construction must be urgently reexamined.

Japan faces the task of securing a stable power supply while simultaneously implementing measures against global warming. Achieving this became more difficult after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant. It is important to maintain diversified electricity sources, including coal firing, in addition to restarting nuclear reactors once their safety has been confirmed.

Many coal-fired plants in emerging countries, such as China and India, are inefficient. If these nations are to utilize Japan’s high-performance equipment, however, it can act as a favourable contribution toward dealing with a global environmental issue.

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