December 31, 2006


Movement Toward Sustainable Energy -- World Update and Japan's Potential

iidasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Tetsunari IIDA, Executive Director, Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, Japan

Although brilliant researchers, typically in Europe and the U.S., or in China as an exception among Asian nations, have the common understanding of "sustainable energy", the counterparts in Japan have not had the one and inconsistent information is prevailing in this country. While observing an international trend toward sustainability, what kind of approach is required to have its international and common understanding to take root in Japan as a governmental policy as well as move forward toward its realization?

What is sustainable natural energy?

Natural energy includes energy of solar origin and geothermal energy meaning magma heat as well as wind, wave and tidal energy. However, some types of renewable energy cannot be classified into sustainable natural energy. For example, large-scale power generation by hydroelectric dams, typically the Three Gorges Dam in China, and multi-purpose dams, represented by Yanba Dam in Japan, does not emit CO2 but exerts a significantly bad influence upon rivers and other natural, living and social environment. Therefore, hydro energy cannot be indiscriminately categorized into natural energy.

The same thing can be said about traditional biomass, which means conventional-style use of the resource such as burning wood, glass or even cow dung in India, while causing atmospheric pollution, as seen in developing nations or rural districts in Japan. The problems are said to be extremely low energy efficiency and resulting health hazard. Renewable energy excluding the above-mentioned problematic ones is called sustainable natural energy or new renewable energy.

Sustainability in energy depends on how primary energy sources can be perfectly shifted to natural energy and how the consumption of primary energy sources can be reduced by improving efficiency on the consumer side. Generation of energy with higher exergy, for example, electricity is always accompanied by the existence of waste heat. Usable electricity will be 40 percent of the total energy at most and the rest will be emitted as waste heat. The exergy of the waste heat is low but it is enough for heating or hot water supply. Like solar, wind or hydraulic power, a technology that directly converts the natural energy into electricity does not cause loss. Electricity generation by direct combustion, however, causes loss of energy, if it were not for equipment to use the waste heat in heating or other purposes. Amory Lovins, former Chief Executive Officer of Rocky Mountain Institute, said that electric heating was like cutting a cake of butter with electricity-powered saw.
In other words, we must use the right energy in the right place. Ultimate sustainable society can only be realized when sustainable energy sources are used in a rate that does not exceed a regeneration rate.

Can natural energy be a solution?

Natural energy is one of the global warming countermeasures that are attracting international attention. Use of such energy can also be measures beneficial to industry, employment and regions. We may safely say that nothing can be more beneficial. However, Japan is not very positive about it in contrast to the rising momentum in the international community.

We often hear concerns about the volume of supply. Energy from petroleum and nuclear power we currently use accounts for only one percent of the total solar energy that we receive on earth. As long as 70 percent of solar energy is immediately reflected by the earth's surface, not all of the energy can be used. But the problem about the volume is almost cleared by examining the solar energy only. The remaining issue is the possibility of practical application in terms of technology, economy, society and time.

When we see the GDP and energy consumption for the last 100 years, we realize that both have increased. It does not mean the growth of economy accelerated by increased energy consumption but means the increase in energy consumption facilitated by economic growth. In the global economy, energy consumption has increased in line with the economic growth in any country. Hereafter, "decoupling" is required, where energy consumption is reduced rather than increased even if the economy grows.

Developed nations need to decouple the economic growth and energy consumption. They need to shift from quantitative growth to qualitative one. More than two billion people living in developing nations out of 6.5 billion in the whole world have no access to minimum energy. Under such circumstances, minimal life standards of citizens must be met in such nations. The model of growth should not be the one experienced by the developed nations, where excessive amount of petroleum is consumed, but the one that can be realized by the energy-saving technologies the advanced nations have. By using such cutting-edge technologies, the developing nations should omit the "Petroleum Era".

Adoption of appropriate policies is the key

Even in the situation as explained above, Japan's target is only 1.35 percent increase in natural energy, which is virtually nothing. Globally, some nations set ambitious goals of some 20 percent for the period from 2010 to 2020. Remarkably successful are Germany, Sweden and other Scandinavian nations.

Although wind-power generation in Germany had been practically nil until 1990, the country currently commands 40 percent of the world's wind-power generation as of the end of 2006. Natural energy makes up 10 percent of total electricity in this country and CO2 emission is reduced by 80 million tons. It is equivalent to the reduction target of Japan in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol (6 percent). The market size of wind-power generation there is 400 billion yen (U.S.$3.36 billions) and the size of the whole natural energy is one trillion yen (U.S.$8.4 billions), creating 170,000 jobs.

Another good example is biomass energy in Sweden. Biomass refers to biological materials, including woodchips, animal and plant matter which can be used as energy. Woodchips are mostly used in Sweden. Currently, they account for almost 20 percent of the total primary energy, second only to petroleum. The biggest spur was introduction of environmental tax in 1990 and 1991. In this system, fossil fuel is taxable, while biomass is not.

It has become a global common sense that generation of natural energy will steadily increase only by setting high political target value and introducing appropriate political measures. The key is whether or not the measures can be actually introduced. Japan is at a deadlock because it has failed to introduce them. Then, how should we behave? The secret of Sweden's success in biomass energy is not simply dependent on the introduction of an environmental tax. It was achieved thanks to the existence of social, physical and political infrastructure.

Sweden has 288 municipalities. Among them, about 110 have equipment to provide district heating using biomass energy. Vaxjo is a town in southern Sweden. It has adopted biomass energy in stages since 1980, largely through the efforts of the local forest industry. In 1996, it declared a promise to abandon the use of fossil fuel and shifted toward the realization of 100 percent biomass energy. It was not a mere effort to solve energy problems. By mapping out and practicing the community's environmental plan named "Agenda 21", the target is almost achieved. It is not an effort by an unknown energy company. They do have a mechanism where they can decide by themselves which energy they use in their community in addition to which equipment they use. This is the point that attracts global attention.

In Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, organizations named Copenhagen Environment and Energy Office (CEEO) promote natural energy by preparing opportunities that facilitate partnership among the government, businesses and NPOs. Off the coast of Copenhagen, twenty windmills operate for wind-power generation. The Copenhagen citizens invest a total of 1.8 billion yen (U.S.$15 millions) in ten of them, paying 50,000 yen (U.S.$420) per share. As it yields an excellent interest, 10 percent a year, investors recoup the expenses in about five years and they will receive profit from then onward. This attractive system was established by the CEEO.

The Samsoe Island of the same country declared its promise to achieve 100 percent natural energy. Another CEEO, lead by Søren Hermansen was also established in the island to build windmills. They started the efforts from 1997 and achieved the target of using 100 percent natural energy in electricity generation in 2003, by promoting district heating using straw. As for heat, approximately 60 percent has been shifted to natural energy.

The strength of the island is not limiting themselves to the local activities but acting as a hub of the local natural energy offices in the EU. Now, the EU has more than 300 local environmental/energy offices. It illustrates the advanced state of decentralization and regionalization of policies and business in terms of energy.

New approach of Japan

Then, isn't there any hope about Japan? Yes, the most interesting is Tokyo. As the metropolis suffered thick air pollution, it enforced a very strict ordinance and made a collaborative effort with Tokyo Electric Power Company. This trial was immediately adopted by other municipalities nationwide. The nationwide movement forced the national government to amend the Air Pollution Control Law to make it severer. Recent movements including restriction on diesel exhaust emission and the mechanism where businesses should calculate and disclose the amount of CO2 emission were also first started by Tokyo and then gradually introduced to municipalities throughout the nation.

This year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced the Renewable Energy Strategy, promising that the ratio of natural energy will be 20 percent by 2020, instead of the national government's target (1.35 percent). I myself am a member of the planning committee and collaborate on a project based on the strategy with the Bureau of Environment of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. This is an example of new approaches by municipalities of the country.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Japan. It is seen in Europe as well. If a small country or a municipality adopts an exceptionally outstanding environmental policy, or makes political innovation, it will soon be propagated to nearby bodies. It will be further advanced and diffused, resulting in complete change in the national government's policy.

In the business field as well, there is a system named Certificates of Green Power (Japanese counterpart of Green Tag), which we introduced to and realized in Japan. The Japan's leading musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and some other artists have a policy to hold concerts only in halls that have acquired the certificate. The open-air concert "ap bank fes" held in Tsumagoi, Japan, was powered by Green electricity only. Such new approaches are often observed these days.

At last, citizens' windmill operation started in Japan in 2001. It is an approach where not only companies but also citizens invest in windmills and the investors share the profit, as seen in Copenhagen. We are one of the shareholders. Nine windmills are operating in Japan.

In Iida City, Nagano Prefecture, a private business company named "Ohisama Shimpo Energy, a limited liability company" was organized with a capital of 200 million yen raised by the citizens and is providing photovoltaic power generation and energy-saving services. In Bizen City, Okayama Prefecture, the citizens raised a fund of 490 million yen (U.S.$41,000) and started energy business based on the principle of local production for local consumption.

Mechanism to realize a sustainable society

How can we disseminate such individual efforts to our whole society? For this purpose, we must link such efforts with each other. When I lived in Sweden, I was impressed by the high quality of life they were enjoying. Advancement in the use of natural energy is only one example. There are theaters or cinemas even in a small town, restaurants always provide good service, and offices are comfortable to work. People are assured to live a pleasant life there. They are aggressive in having good time and pursuing happiness and the society is willing to support it.

To clarify the vision of sustainable society in 30 to 50 years, including the energy problems, backcasting is said to be an important method. At the same time, it is necessary to avoid leaving decisions to the policymakers in the national government and the political or business world and to build up actual practices by ourselves even in the midst of uncertainty.

Japan moves very quickly once a change starts. One of the techniques for social innovation is to create something substantial instead of doing conceptual thinking. Realistically, altering policies one by one based on the trial and error approach is the golden road to realize sustainable society in Japan, although it may seem an indirect way.

In this sense, we must build the Green Electricity system or citizens' windmill anyway in the first place. The key to success is how we can direct the society's interest to them. Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP) is involved in all processes, including building mechanisms, making business, policies, business models, cash flow and consensus-building in communities. Although we sometimes participate in hopeless discussion, we are always energetic and we believe we are getting a substantial response.

Tetsunari IIDA, MSc

Executive Director, Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, Japan,

Senior lecturer, Sustainable Energy Policy Studies at Tokyo University, Tohoku University, Obirin University

Governmental Committee, Climate Change Committee for Ministry of the Environment,
Renewable Energy Committee for Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (- 2005),
Energy Policy Committee for Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (- 2003),
Environmental Committee for Tokyo Metropolitan Government and many of local governments

Contact :
Nakano 4-7-3, Nakano-ku, Tokyo, Japan 164-0001
Phone : +81-3-5318-3331Fax : +81-3-3319-0330


  • Top opinion leaders in the field of sustainable energy policy, well-known in Japan and internationally through many of academic publishing and through mass media as an independent and non-profit intellectual.
  • Having long been working as a "social innovator", many of movements and results are achieved, or at least, coming out, such as;
    • Originally proposed for the idea of "introducing green power scheme in Japan", and involved in developing Japan's first green power certificate,
    • Developing financing scheme of the Japan's first "community wind ownership", had succeeded, and now under developing it into nation wide project,
    • Having organized "the Supra-coalition of Member of Parliaments (MPs) for renewable promotion", consisting of 1/3 of total MPs, then resulting in new legislation of "Renewable Promotion Law"

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