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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The One Nation Returning To Coal

As the developed world moves farther and farther away from coal-fired energy, one major economy is breaking the trend. Japan, in a move that few could have foreseen, has opened at least eight brand new coal-burning power plants in the last two years and has plans for at least 36 more in the next ten years.

This ambitious return to coal far outstrips any other developed nation, and it’s only speeding up. Last month the Japanese government made major advancements to officially adopt a national energy plan that would see 26 percent of the country’s total electricity come from coal in 2030, directly contradicting a previous directive to cut back coal usage to just 10 percent of total electricity.

One major reason for the stark turnaround in policy is the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The tragedy provided a huge blow to the Japanese public’s support for nuclear energy. After the Fukushima disaster, all 54 of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down as they awaited new rigorous safety standards. To date, just seven of the 54 have reopened for business. In order to fulfill demand, the nation has turned to natural gas and, more surprisingly, coal.

However, despite all the love lost for nuclear, there are also plenty of critics to Japan’s new direction, who say that the government is being weak on renewables and that the return to coal guarantees a major rise in air pollution, standing in direct conflict with Japan’s pledges to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. As it stands now, the country is responsible for a whopping 4 percent of global emissions, and that’s before the impending construction of 36 coal plants over the next decade. Related: Rooftop Solar Could Power 75% Of U.S. Homes

In addition to its bullish building plans, Japan is also backing off on previous promises to shutter existing coal facilities. Instead of looking to clean up coal and invest in ageing infrastructure, local power company Electric Power Development Co Ltd. recently announced that they would forgo a previously announced plan to replace two ageing coal-fired power plants with newer, more efficient facilities in the Takasago region of Western Japan. Instead of moving forward with their plans to construct two 600-megawatt (MW) coal-fired power generation units the company will continue to use facilities that are now nearly 50 years old.

Japan’s hunger for coal is not purely domestic--last month the government of Wyoming announced that the Japan Coal Energy Center and Kawasaki Heavy Industries intend to spend $9 million in grant funding for research of carbon capture near the U.S. city of Gillette. Japan’s relationship with Wyoming coal, however, is nothing new. In 2016 Wyoming governor Matt Mead signed an agreement to collaborate with the Japan Coal Energy Center for coal research and technology. As the U.S. continues to move away from coal despite the administration's coal-positive rhetoric, the interest and research money coming from Japan is a breath of fresh air in a dying industry.

In addition to their research on carbon innovations in Wyoming, Japan is also looking for other ways to greenify coal, including looking into the fossil fuel as a possible source of energy for hydrogen-powered cars. In fact, Japanese engineering firm Kawasaki Heavy Industries has partnered with Australia to turn their cheap coal into hydrogen gas in a new Melbourne-based $390m pilot plant.

Just a few years ago, any expert would have told you that Japan’s coal industry was on its last legs as well. The nation was leaning heavily into nuclear power, with plans to cut by half what was a 25 percent dependency on coal in 2010 and increase atomic energy from 29 percent to 50 percent by 2030. Now, that trend has done a full 180°. Related: Brent Rises To 4-Year High As Houthis Target Saudi Oil Facility

Unlike other developed nations that now depend heavily on cheap natural gas, for Japan the math works out to coal’s benefit. Since the island nation has to import natural gas in its relatively pricey liquid form, coal is the more fiscally savvy option.

So far, the turn has been a boon to the economy. In one example, Japanese trading house Itochu Corp recently announced a 13.7 percent boost in annual net profit, and they attribute a large portion of it to higher coal prices thanks to the newfound demand. They’ve predicted that the current financial year will also be one of their best.

Against all odds, coal is making a comeback in at least one major global market, and with China and India (two of the largest markets in the world) continuing to depend heavily on coal, it looks like the once-ailing industry may have some life left in it after all.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • John Brown on May 07 2018 said:
    This article shows how stupid the Paris Accord were and how brilliant Trump was to get out of the giant corrupt boondoggle. Japan isn't the only other country to turn to coal. Angela Merkel after wasting hundreds of billions on renewable energy and forcing Germans to pay the highest electricity rates in the world shut down German's nuclear plants with no way to replace the energy except with Nuclear. These morons sign accords, but they never expect to keep them. The USA folks has reduced Greenhouse emission more than any other nation because Trump was brilliant enough to stay away for stupid corrupt accords and count on the genius of Private Enterprise. The USA has been rapidly switching to cheaper, cleaner natural gas and greenhouse gas emissions have been plunging in the USA while these other countries waste tens of billions, hammer their citizens with costs and lost jobs, and then burn coals and pollute. The USA is on a path that will continue to lead the world in Greenhouse emission reductions while China and much of the rest pollute more and more. So much for signatures in Paris. And while the USA is switching now in a huge way to cheaper cleaner natural gas, its also cutting the cost of renewables and letting the grow market share in a way that is sustainable. Thanks to OPEC/Russian and Saudi Arabia pushing the price of oil artificially high both the U.S. shale industry production of oil and natural gas will soar, and renewables will soar.
  • John Scior on May 07 2018 said:
    When it comes right down to it, countries will go the way that is more finacially prudent. I do believe Climate change is real, however , I think it folly to try to implement a scheme of cap and trade. I'm glad the US did not fall for this nonsense too broadly. If true efforts to minimize GHG
    emissions were to exist, their would be more efforts to find productive uses for gas flared off at oil wells.
  • Eric M Staib on May 07 2018 said:
    What an awful decision.
  • D R Pearson on May 08 2018 said:
    Amazing how Japan pulls off another surprise on the USA. For over two decades, since 1992, the world has had Climate Change and goals to cut GHG emissions rammed down their political throats after the 1992 Kyoto Accord which was signed by 192 countries during the Kyoto meeting held in Japan in 1992.

    Now Japan totally backs out of the Kyoto Accord by utilizing coal to power their electricity needs due to the cost of LNG being to high. LNG is readily available, LNG is fungible, and LNG is not drastically high in cost. More importantly, LNG is significantly cleaner than the high GHG emissions produced by coal.

    Amazing how the Paris Accord along with the initial Kyoto Accord simply get trashed when there is alternative clean natural gas located worldwide, and natural gas is safely transportable in liquid form as LNG. Very large new discovers of natural gas are being made every year in the multiple offshore areas across the globe. So much for the Kyoto Accord. Regards.
  • John on May 08 2018 said:
    Coal and hydrogen - seems like Japan is just continuing to make all the wrong decisions.
  • Tony Cutler on May 13 2018 said:
    Thumbs up to Japan

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