Japanese scurrying to get out of oil

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Japan's "economic miracle" expansion in the 1960s was built on cheap, readily available oil. Its continued economic well-being is now based on getting out of oil as fast as possible.

In the next decade, the government alone will spend an estimated $13 billion on research into coal, solar, and geothermal energy; on power generated by wind, waves, and ocean temperatures; and on synthetic fuels and hydrogen.

Many of these alternative energy sources are scheduled to come on stream in the 1990s, the gap being bridged by rapid expansion of coal, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and nuclear- generated power.

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But interviews with a number of energy experts show widespread skepticism that, in view of Japan's antinuclear movement and environmental problems hampering coal and geothermal development, the government's targets are far too optimistic.

Japan's flirtation with oil was a brief but passionate romance. Less than 20 years ago coal, charcoal, and wood were still the country's main energy sources.

At the start of the 1960s, however, the government decided to base its industrial expansion policy on imported oil, becoming in time the world's biggest importer of crude and second (after the United States) overall energy consumer.

The 1973 "oil shock" panicked many Japanese into believing the country faced economic disaster. It didn't happen, and there is a consensus today that energy constraints are unlikely to put a direct brake on econoic growth. Yet, dependence on oil (99 percent imported) is still seen as a grave economic and strategic weakness.

Imported oil last year cost Japan $40 billion. this year it will rise to $67 billion, about half the nation's total import bill. At the Venice summit meeting of industrialized nations last July, Japan pledged not to increase its oil imports after 1985 and to increase its nonoil-derived energy from the present level of the equivalent of 1.7 million barrels of oil to 5 million barrels.

Size of Japan's two oil shocks, 1973-1974, 1979-present 1973 1974 1979 1980 Oil import bill (in US dollars) 6,000 18,898 33,471 55,450 Percentage change 52.8 215.0 42.8 66 Oil imports prices (in US dollars) 31.4 227.8 37.5 75

Oil self-denial is slowly developing into a national creed. The electric utility industry's supply-and-demand committee has set a target of reducing oil's share of power output from the current 57 percent to approximately 40 percent in 1985, 20 percent in 1990, and only 10 percent by the middle of that decade.

Meanwhile, the government hopes that development of alternatives will cut oil's share of total energy needs from the present 75 percent to 63 percent in 1985, 50 percent in 1990, and 43 percent five years later.

But achieving that target depends in large part on the success of still-untried technology.

A proliferation of private and public committees as well as a wide range of commercial interests is involved in the alternative-energy program. One of the biggest problems in the next few years will be harnessing these into a coherent national energy policy.

A new government organization charged with this task will begin operation in October.

The most immediate concern is steaming coal. When the smell of cheap oil proved so alluring, the Tokyo government took the highly unpopular step of phasing out the domestic coal mining industry.

The few mines that survived are struggling to meet current annual production targets of around 18 million tons (most of it metallurgical coking coal for the steel industry). Because of the depletion of well-worked mines, shortage of mines, and high cost of deep shaft mining, there is little hope the domestic industry can rise to the nation's renewed interest in thermal coal.

The Japanese will now have to rely heavily on foreign mines. The Trade and Industry Ministry is projecting that steaming-coal imports will rise from last year's 1 million tons to around 54 million tons by the end of this decade.

No new oil-burning power stations will be permitted after 1985, and, in fact, planning permission for any more from now on will be very difficult to obtain. Ten oil-burning plants are scheduled to be converted to coal this year.

For the next years, the coal will have to be burned basically as it is until projects for its liquefaction and gasification to produce a "clean" fuel become commercially viable.

Until then, there is a major problem of pollution. The government is offering loans to power plants to help with the extra cost of antipollution equipment, but there are other environmental considerations such as the coal's transportation and storage, which are expected to arouse public concern.

Toru Kimura, chief economist of the Institute of Energy Economics (a semiprivate think tank that "borrows" the best brains in industry for long-term research projects) is one who thinks that this will make it hard to meet the government targets.

"We have already seen how the nuclear power plant construction program has been crippled by public and environmentalist groups' opposition. Coal will face the same problem, so I would think a more realistic estimate of our 1990 needs would be under 30 million tons."

An estimated $60 million will be spent this year in research on coal liquefaction and gasification. Test plants for both techniques are in operation. Japan has already signed international cooperation agreements with Australia and also with the US and West Germany on liquefaction, and has begun a feasibility study for a similar tie-up with China. It hopes that liquefaction will provide the equivalent of 290,000 barrels of oil a day by 1990.

Japan's LNG imports last year totaled 11 million tons. Within 15 years that figure is expected to be 50 million tons, split between power utilities and city gas. Tokyo Electric has developed a technique for using the heat vaporizing LNG for power generation, which it plans to put into commercial operation by the middle of the decade.

The prime cost of 10 to 15 yen per kilowatt makes it cheaper than both oil and coal, and on a par with nuclear energy, a company official said.

Nuclear power, however, is no longer considered the panacea of Japan's energy ills, as it once was. Opposition to the siting of power plants, especially over the safety issue, has been intensified by the Three Mile Island accident in the US.

The government's construction program is many years behind schedule. It still hopes that by 1990 nuclear power output will have quadrupled, to about 60 million kilowatts, accounting for around 11 percent of national demand. Experts at the Institute of Energy Economics believe 8.6 percent is a much more reasonable figure.

The Trade and Industry Ministry is promoting the idea of Japanese involvement in international projects for fuel enrichment and waste disposal. It has estimated that Japan will have to spend $20 billion during the current decade on nuclear research.

As with so many of its needs, Japan has had to look elsewhere for its uranium (most of it enriched by the US). But it has begun studies on recovering uranium from seawater and is working on a fast breeder reactor, to reach criticality in the 1980s.

Much of the research effort, however, is being poured into the government's "sunshine project," launched in 1974 to find clean, safe alternative forms of energy.

The tempo is increasing. Up to 1979, the government had spent about $190 million on research. It will come close to that figure in 1980 alone. Original expectations were for 1.6 percent of the nation's energy requirements from the project by 1990. But this was revised last year to 5 percent.

The highlights:

* Solar energy: Solar water heaters were first introduced in the 1960s. Placed on the sunniest side of the roof, they produced tepid water that cut electricity bills when run through a conventional bath heater. With improvements made over the past few years, the public has begun to show increased interest. Makers sold 150,000 units in 1978 and 340,000 units last year, and expect up to a million to be bought this year. The government offers subsidized loans and tax credits to first-time buyers to boost sales. The system, however, still needs a conventional backup (gas, electricity, or kerosene) for bad weather.

* Two pilot plants for solar thermal power generation will become operational in 1981, but experts say costs will have to be reduced to one-tenth of present levels to become economically viable. A number of experimental solar heated and cooled houses and apartment buildings have been built, and the government plans to test industrial applications starting next year.

* Photovaltaic solar cells for power generation are still not considered practical, although a test plan of several hundred kilowatt capacity will go into operation next year.

* Ocean thermal energy conversion is highly regarded by the government. A 1, 000-kw pilot plant is to be built in the Pacific Ocean south of Tokyo this year, to test the feasibility of using the difference in temperature between the surface and the ocean bed to generate power. But there are many technical problems to be resolved.

* Wave power generation: The feasibility of converting wave motion to electricity has been confirmed in tests off the coast of western Japan with a ship-shaped plant housing a turbine generator. The main technical problems to be solved involve how to achieve stable voltage and output with irregular wave motion.

* Wind power: Eight windmills in operation for the past two years have convinced scientists they are no Don Quixotes. Pitch-control systems to cope with the typhoons that strike Japan, as well as problems of tower vibration, still have to be worked out. Geothermal power is the showpiece of the sunshine project. As a volcanic, earthquake-prone country, Japan has a buried treasure which experts say could provide 40 million kw of power annually for a thousand years. Steam and water heated by hot rocks is already being drawn off up to depth of 1,000 meters, and scientists are working on tapping the energy much farther down.

Hiromi Kubo, an energy economist, points to a number of problems, however. First, the most promising areas are in national parks, where the government now bans geothermal power projects. Drawing off underground water will contribute to ground subsidence, and such water is usually contaminated with arsenic and other poisonous metallic traces that would make waster disposal a major problem. Still, the government wants to have 20 geothermal plants producing 7 million kw of power by 1995 (1980 figures: six plants, 168,000 kw).

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