Japan has set itself ambitious renewable energy targets for the year 2030, but can they be achieved? The head of the Japan Renewable Energy Link (J-REL), Kazuya Kitamura, talks to Io Kawauchi about what needs to happen
Some say that Japan’s finest hour on the global environmental stage came in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted at a UN climate change conference held in the ancient capital. This was an international treaty that saw countries across the world pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
“The Kyoto Protocol was progressive, but no serious action has been taken to combat global warming since then”
But where do Japan’s climate efforts stand 25 years later? Kazuya Kitamura, energy journalist and head of the Japan Renewable Energy Link (J-REL), a consultancy working to promote renewable energy, gives a harsh assessment. “The Kyoto Protocol was progressive, but unfortunately no serious action has been taken to combat global warming since then,” he says. “Compared to much of the rest of the world, Japan has had a weak sense of urgency with regard to global warming, and its policy-making process is always playing catch-up with more environmentally advanced countries.”
However, a number of initiatives have been introduced after a government declaration in 2020 that renewables would make up 36–38 percent of the country’s total energy production by 2030, roughly doubling the ratio of 2019. In May of this year, the government’s interim report concerning its clean energy strategy estimated that in order to achieve this goal, the public and private sectors would need to invest some ¥150 trillion over the next decade.
The 1997 UN climate change conference in Kyoto | UN Photo/Frank Leather
Kitamura points out that for Japan to achieve carbon neutrality in the future, the way energy is produced and consumed needs to change radically. One such shift is towards the production of energy from hydrogen, which emits no carbon dioxide when burned.
“Hydrogen has been considered costly,” Kitamura says, “but in recent years, prices have fallen to a competitive level. Green hydrogen, which can be stored by electrolyzing water with surplus renewable energy, can be effective for decarbonization purposes. And Japan has a long history of hydrogen research, with the Hitachi Zosen Corporation and Kobelco Eco-Solutions, a subsidiary of Kobe-based steel manufacturer Kobelco, having the most advanced technology.”
Plans are underway in the European Union, adds Kitamura, to bring in renewable energy in excess of demand, and use it to create green hydrogen. Widespread adoption would mean that hydrogen energy has potential as an industry.
“Green hydrogen can be effective for decarbonization purposes... and Japan has a long history of hydrogen research”
Kazuya Kitamura | Keisuke Tanigawa
Another European trend is the popularization of heat pumps, which collect heat from the air to use as energy. Heat pump units are highly rated for their energy-saving capabilities, and the market for these devices in Europe has been growing at an average annual rate of more than ten percent over the past decade. Japanese manufacturer Daikin Industries is one of the global leaders in the field.
In terms of consumption, Kitamura highlights the sharing of energy by using electric vehicles (EVs) as storage batteries. REXEV, a start-up involved in EV-based car sharing and energy management, initiated an EV-sharing scheme in the western part of Kanagawa Prefecture, including the city of Odawara, in 2020. The vehicles are charged with renewable energy through Shonan Power Co, which provides locally-produced renewable electricity for nearby consumption.
“The key point is how to use EVs as movable storage batteries, and I think there’s a lot of room for various applications”
Another Japanese tech start-up setting its sights on EVs is Yanekara, the developer of a system that can charge and power multiple vehicles simultaneously using solar energy. Yanekara has conducted tests to curb electricity peaks by remotely monitoring and controlling the charging of EVs used by Japan Post for collection and delivery.
“The key point is how to use EVs as movable storage batteries, and I think there’s a lot of room for various applications,” says Kitamura. “EVs can also be incorporated into business continuity plans as electricity sources in the event of a disaster, so using them as storage batteries is likely to become more common in the future.”
Through the technological advances of large corporations on the production side, and the innovations of start-ups impacting consumption, Japan’s ambitious decarbonization goals can hopefully be achieved.