Solar power reporters with a touch of the sun (and Son)

With a site name like one has high hopes for the quality of articles, but instead we get this AFP wire feed verbatim:

The government estimates the power provided by renewable energy this year in Japan will attain 2,500 megawatts, the equivalent of two medium-sized nuclear reactors.

A quick Google will tell the reader that that is just a wee bit more than Oi 3 and 4’s nominal rating, but what is missing, of course, is a time element. That nuclear station can pump out 2 GW day in day out, but what does that 2,500 MW figure represent? The peak maximum, average per day, maximum rating for everything all added together, or what?

Next, Softbank’s Mr Son gushes:

“Ultimately, if you take the long view, renewable energy will have the cheapest power generation costs,” said Mr. Son, saying that a solar or wind power plant can pay off its set-up expenses within 20 years, and after that it has no resource costs.

Is that 20 year pay-off calculated including the feed-in tariff at current levels? Countries more into renewables than Japan (UK and Holland are two I recently read about) are busy cutting back their feed-in tariffs, and a look around the web suggests that solar panels have a life of 20 to 40 years, and wind turbines 20 to 30, and of course wind turbines in particular need ongoing maintenance, and Holland is finding that offshore turbines are quite expensive to service and maintain in the salty environment.

Finally, in a move designed to get the conspiracy theorists all a-lather, a thermal power station near Himeji croaks:

The campaign took on greater urgency on Monday when Kansai Electric Power, whose service area is being asked to cut usage by 15 percent, said they had suspended operation at a thermal power plant in Himeji, western Japan, because of a steam leakage.

News reports said it would take about 10 days before power generation at the plant could be brought back online, with the outage expected to raise estimated power demand in the region from 81 percent of capacity to 86 percent.

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  1. I don’t want to panic anybody unduly, but i fear the fallout from the Himeji disaster may already have reached Tokyo.

  2. BTW, I watched TV Tackle this evening, and despite about an hour spent on nuclear power, renewables and methane hydrate, no-one once mentioned climate change. Indeed, it seemed to be a given that hydrocarbon-based thermal power would provide the base load. :roll: Incidentally, here’s a current story about the UK’s dash for gas.

  3. Another BTW, I’m guessing we’ll see lots of posts about Japan bringing 2.5 GW online this year, not in total :facepalm:

  4. Tony In Saitama

    I have only half analyzed the figures, but 2500MW is 2.5GW, not 2.5TW. (Barely enough to power two DeLorean based Time machines!-)

  5. @Tony In Saitama: Ugh, yes – let me edit everything… :headdesk:

  6. Ken,

    The usual trick is to conflate nameplate capacity with actual output – so that’s what needs to be checked up on. Afaik, wind plants operate at 20-30% of nameplate capacity.

    The current fashion though, is for solar fanatics to claim things like solar “provided 50% of German electricity demand”, which actually means that it was really sunny over most of Germany for a short period one lunchtime. Solar actually does about 3% at very great expense. Germany’s covered in solar, but it’s not been a great success to anyone except the fanatic – or the higher income households that had the money to invest in panels over the larger area their income has allowed them to own and who get money back from the system when the sun shines.

    Solar is a good idea where it’s sunny a lot. I’m not sure Japan is one of those places. We should be looking at wind more than solar.

  7. beneaththewheel

    All I hear can are the sounds of the narratives I’m used to being crushed.


  8. @chuckers:

    I’d be very circumsepct about any research write-up in the Register connected to climate change. They’ve got a couple of (euphemism alert) “skeptics” who seem to take their talking points from the “skeptic” blogosphere.

    For example, that wind farms can cause local warming is neither here nor there in terms of global warming. It doesn’t represent an increase in the Earth’s global energy budget, it’s just a conversion of one kind of energy into another. You don’t quite get that from the Reg article, however. (Another recent effort is to spin a journal article where the authors conclude the current climate is historically more sensitive to CO2 changes, into an article that disputes the link between CO2 and temperature :headdesk: ).

    Efficiency is another matter, but that’s an issue of tech, placement and electricity transport. There are some concerns over the density of wind farms possible (too close together and upwind “steals” from downwind), but basically the idea is sound. We will need a lot of wind power capacity, and there will be times when it’s producing more than we can use, but that’s hardly fatal. Given that we have to rule out fossil fuel use, it’s quite a good idea.

    The problem with wind (and solar) is the need to have them over a wide enough area, and with the high voltage capacity over that area, so that drops in output in one area (cloudy, windless days) can be almost certainly be balanced by output from where it’s windy or sunny. Without this, there’s a limit to how much a grid can tolerate penetration by these forms of energy while still maintaining stable supply. Which is why Son has been talking in grandiose terms about a supergrid (high capacity, low-loss cables) connecting Japan to China. I don’t think he has that kind of cash himself, though. We still haven’t sorted out the different systems in the two halves of Japan.


    Renewables are good. They’re rather harder to make a success of than some people want to admit, and they’re not 100% environmentally nice, but they’re going to be part of the future mix.

  9. @VK:
    I will grant that the “wind farm causing global warming” thing is perhaps a bit tongue in cheek sort of writing and really shouldn’t be used as anything more than that.

    Not generating as much electricity as promised however, seems to be a topic worth noting that some of the alternatives aren’t really all they are cracked up to be.

    While I applaud Son-san’s efforts on fronting a lot of this out of his own pocket, the conspiracy theorist in me makes me wonder if he isn’t doing this to gloss over the fact that Softbank was absolutely f-ing USELESS on 3/11 for communication. You’d think he’d want to try beef up that particular part of the infrastructure as well.

  10. @chuckers:

    When you’ve got “skeptics” pretending not to understand the difference between summer and winter (oh look, arctic ice is increasing – in October :facepalm: ) and yet are taken seriously by some quarters – it’s very hard to know with these kinds of articles when the tongue is in the cheek or just up the arse of the Kochs or Exxon Mobil. :sad:

    Anyway, I had a quick sniff around that report on the efficiency of wind farms. It turns out “Stewart Young” represents the “Caithness Windfarm Information Forum” – a NIMBY organisation that actively campaigns against wind farms. I’m not sure I’ll go with them over more independent studies. Mmm, lovely website.

  11. Is the relative non-existence of geothermal power in Japan due to actual scientific or technical issues, or is it more political/social foot-dragging?

  12. @Sublight:

    The biggest problem facing geothermal is resistance by the onsen industry. A lot of the onsen businesses are afraid that widespread adoption of geothermal will destroy the industry.

    Aside from that the other problems include:
    1) Development of geothermal sites would almost all be on nationally preserved land.
    2) Development costs are high and results aren’t always assured (i.e. risk is high).
    3) It requires a 10-15 year lead time.
    4) It’s more expensive than other forms of energy such as fossil fuels.
    5) It’s uncertain how long a well can be used before drilling another is necessary.

  13. And for the record, that lead time was taken from a Tohoku University site I found, but this geothermal industry website says plants require between 4 and 8 years lead time:

  14. @VK:

    To be fair, The Reg also posted a LOT of articles about debunk the “deathclouds of Fukushima” stuff that was going around (and continues to go around.)


    I have heard it was social foot-dragging and NIMBY Onsen owners that don’t want their hot springs to start running cold or stop entirely when some lout tries to use all that hot water to generate power.

  15. @chuckers:

    El Reg is not all bad – although Lewis Page went a little over the top with his “nothing to see here” act on Fukushima. It’s just that on climate change and environmental issues it’s very suspect. It’s odd for a site specialising in tech, but I think it’s the politics of people coming through more than anything else. They like nuclear, they see environmentalism in general as anti-nuclear, so they are anti-environmentalist… It’s all a bit silly. (Like those environmentalists who prioritise renewables over tackling climate change are silly.)

  16. If anyone’s interested, this is an article by Son on his solar power plans.

    * There’s no mention there of the problems of baseload or storage. Which is very worrying.
    * He seems to think that Kansai has been significantly irradiated by the Fukushima disaster (his personal geiger counter rose to have the same figures as for Tokyo).
    * He claims to make business decisions based on surveys done through his Twitter account
    * He claims tsunami-salinised land will be unusable for a decade (so he wants the government to give it to him for his solar business plans) A quick google tells me that expert opinion is that even the heaviest areas will actually take three to five years to recover. So much for his concern for local communities.
    * He complains that the “real” price of nuclear is not the usual estimate of 5-6 yen per KWh, but 15 and so far too expensive – and then goes onto insist that solar prices be fixed at 40 yen/KWh for twenty years.
    * He praises German solar, but does not mention the battle to lower the FIT, or the collapse in German solar production. No mention that Germany has very high electricity prices.
    * He claims fossil fuel prices are going to rise, although gas prices are low and falling, with shale gas getting approval in many places. We also have lots of coal left. (Has he “accidentally” confused peak oil with peak fossil?)

    Son is a very bright man, and is good at making money. His rhetoric therefore, given that it does not appear to accord a great deal with reality, seems to me like marketing with no substance. Of course, he’s taking people in.

    (Japan Focus seems to have a lot of articles by non-scientists on the dangers of nuclear power that lack science references (so must be based on their expert authority). I had no idea there were so many nuclear experts all over the place.)

  17. Since we’re talking about power, maybe we can also talk about the government’s official report regarding the Fukushima disaster:

    Not a lot of surprises here, but it’s a pretty damning critique of Japan’s bureaucratic culture:

    “The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly “manmade.” We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual. (see Recommendation 1)”

    The worker and evacuee surveys are also pretty interesting.

  18. @George, @Ken:

    A thread devoted to the report would be very good. Those worker surveys are bad. Extensive subcontracting in an industry that needs strict safety governance is perhaps not the best idea.

    By the by, shisaku has been claiming that the English version contains commentary on the contributory problems of Japanese culture that aren’t in the Japanese version (for international prejudiced consumption) – but that doesn’t seem to be the case. As a big fan of Kan, I think it’s not unlikely he’ll to be hostile to the findings.

  19. @VK:

    I’ve been busy with work so I’ve only glanced at the English version, but it appears to be a direct translation of the original. Is there any part that shisaku is referring to in particular?

  20. @VK:

    By the by, shisaku has been claiming that the English version contains commentary on the contributory problems of Japanese culture that aren’t in the Japanese version (for international prejudiced consumption) – but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Indeed. The English might be a bit liberal in translation but he seems to be blaming Japanese culture as well in the Japanese version from what I can gather:

    そこには、ほぼ50 年にわたる一党支配と、新卒一
    して、日本の原発は、いわば無防備のまま、3.11 の日

  21. I don’t get Shisaku’s love for former PM Kan.

    In this matter in particular, it’s clear that Kan needed to reestablish communication with people who knew what they were doing (plant managers, etc.), but to actually believe that Kan showing up in his helicopter served any purpose whatsoever is idiotic.

    Kan’s major contribution to this disaster was making sure TEPCO people stayed at the plant to do what needed to be done (contrary to what Ampontan believes), but that’s where it ends. Less we forget, the government under his leadership had the people in Minamisoma sitting in the direct path of the most severe radiation contamination despite Edano repeating over and over that there was nothing for them to worry about — while at the same time having SPEEDI and US measurements telling them exactly how much contamination they were facing, and where people should have been evacuated.

    TEPCO and NISA should absolutely be held accountable for their incompetence and collusion, but Kan is just as complicit in his inability to provide the leadership required in such a horrific situation.

  22. @George:

    Kan built up a lot of the right kind of good will in his actions as health minister in the 1990s. Also, at the time of the disaster, Kan seemed to be bashing heads together at a time when it needed to be done. He also followed a series of very poor prime ministers: I shudder a little thinking of Hatoyama, Aso or Abe trying to take a leadership role in such a crisis. Kan seemed to be evidence that Japan could produce stronger, more honest leaderhip, against the western prejudice of stagnant, incapable politics.

    It’s also true that there were hefty elements in the political establishment and the media who never liked Kan, so stories of the problems of his leadership could reasonably be dismissed as spin.

    My impression is that Shisaku has nailed his colours to the mast with Kan and does not feel able to back down. His one sentence dismissal of the alleged problems caused by Kan’s actions (such as visiting the site) feels very partisan rather than objective.

    I thought Kan was a Good Thing at the time. But as details have slowly come out, I’ve recognised he made some poor judgements. His subsequent “I saved Japan” press tour has left a bad taste in my mouth. I think he’s a decent human being – unlike, say, Ozawa – and quite possibly did a better job than many of his predecessors might have done. But they were ghastly, so that’s not saying much.

  23. @VK

    I knew about his early reputation, but it was pretty clear after he became PM that he was just falling in line with the bureaucrats. The writing was on the wall for his resignation when 3.11 happened. I shudder to think of what would have happened had good ol’ Loopy McPopo had been PM when the disasters struck, so in that sense, I suppose Kan was better than nothing.

    I will admit that, like you, I thought that Edano et al were really doing a smash up job until the gritty details started to come out. More than anything, I think that’s why Kan should be getting a ton of criticism — he had the perfect opportunity to take charge, but because he failed to do so, not only did the power plant situation get out of control, but he let tens of thousands of people to freeze and starve in makeshift shelters. He could have been seen as a savior in the history books if he had actually made a difference, but instead he was playing a failing game of politics when people were actually suffering.

    I would love to hear what Tohoku residents think now that the LDP and DPJ have left them all to fend for themselves.

  24. @VK: I read that story, and it was a bit naff to say the least. His graph about how “solar is cheaper than nuclear” is debunked in a few places, such as this one:

  25. @Ken Y-N:

    The article is interesting, but it doesn’t really say anything concrete. What I mean by that is that it is lacking data.

    It says that solar “with subsidies” is more expensive” than nuclear “with subsidies”. Next, it clearly points out the price difference for solar between subsidized and unsubsidized prices, but then it doesn’t even bother showing the price difference for nuclear. I think my implication is obvious, but I’ll be direct anyway: what if the subsidies for nuclear power – including tax write-offs, cash refunds, discounts on land/materiel, etc. – are higher than the subsidies available for solar? Perhaps the post-subsidized price of nuclear is cheaper, sure, but is the pre-subsidized price cheaper?

    Just to be clear, I’m not a hippie. I dislike the smell of patchouli. I’m just saying that there have been many, many dishonest analyses of this issue, and exactly zero honest ones.

    I want the truth. How much solar costs (without subsidies) is easy to calculate. How much nuclear costs (without subsidies) is almost impossible to calculate without a degree in forensic accountancy.

  26. Oops. Sorry about the extra ” lying around.

  27. @hekokiyama:

    As an aside, “Honest” analysis depends for too many on a pre-decided outcome.

    To the main point: The cost of solar isn’t so easy to calculate. You can’t simply scale up. Once intermittent supplies (wind and especially solar) reach a certain level of grid penetration (between 20 and 30%) the instability of supply becomes too difficult to manage with current grids. You have to re-build grids over a very wide geographical area (ie intercontinental) with high capacity low-loss lines.

    I have found it very difficult to get solar fanatics to acknowledge this, even though,afaics, the necessity of a supergrid for an intermittent-based energy sector is a given in grid management. It’s not that they deny the problem – it’s that they ignore it, change the subject, go a bit weird…

    Solar fanatics give me the impression of being less interested in the environment than in narrating a stalkerish fantasy of how solar will rescue us from nasty global warming”. The simple point of “on average it only shines for a few hours a day if that” doesn’t seem to register. “But look how much power we made at 12.09 June 10 last year!”

    At the latitudes most of the OECD is at, give me a wind power advocate any day. Unlike solar, it’s been demonstrated at a large scale.

  28. @VK:

    I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, but one thing I’m not sure of is the necessity for improved grid capacity. Isn’t the point of solar to decentralize the supply of power? If everyone has a few solar panels on their roof, and everyone is (for example) covering 30% of their own consumption, we’d actually see a reduction in grid infrastructure.

    I have NO idea how feasible it would be, but when I think of solar panel, that’s what I envision – a decentralized network.

    As to wind, I’m in. But I’ll have to move, because I get bugger all breeze near my house.

  29. @hekokiyama:

    Wouldn’t you still need the grid to cover the other 70% from somewhere else?

  30. @hekokiyama:

    Isn’t the point of solar to decentralize the supply of power? If everyone has a few solar panels on their roof, and everyone is (for example) covering 30% of their own consumption, we’d actually see a reduction in grid infrastructure.

    That’s the point if you listen to well-to-do middle class “environmentalists”. The reality is that we do not all live in big houses with roof or garden space enough to meaningfully contribute to our own needs with solar, and instead effective solar means huge solar arrays on surfaces open to the sky – whether that be roof top or solar farms. This is more dispersed, but it’s not microgeneration. But this is not the half of it.

    Why the need for the huge new grid? The thing is, we’re not very good at storing electricity. The best large commercial rechargeable batteries we have are in things like hybrid cars, and they don’t last so long, and aren’t very efficient. As far as I know, the most efficient storage method is pumping water up a hill, although tech companies are working on the problem. (Denmark manages a large amount of wind production because it passes excess energy onto Sweden and Norway, who ramp down their extensive hydro for a bit.). So, until we totally solve the storage problem (and electric car batteries will be part of the solution) we need to have continually produced electricity from somewhere.

    Which is where we come up against the really obvious problem is that not only does the sun not shine and the wind not blow all the time, but that this is true for large areas all at the same time. Look at the weather map for Japan on TV. It can be the same weather, more or less, for the entire country sometimes. So you need to have wind and solar farms connected to a grid that spans several weather systems.

    In addition, if you do have such a grid, current power lines can’t carry power long distances without loss. So we need to put down new lines that can carry large amounts of power like this.

    We also need a system that can manage sudden increases and falls in supply from various regions. German investment in solar and wind is causing problems for European grids because it creates power surges that the current grid isn’t good at handling. And German renewables are a small percentage of overall West/Central European production. Google “german grid problems wind solar” and you’ll find quite a few articles about it.

    This grid needs to be huge, and it will be expensive, and it and all the turbines and panels will take a long time to set up. Optimistic estimates for going green like this put it at around forty years. And until then, we’ll need to burn fossil fuels much as before. Apparently. To me, it seems like the renewables-only people are exploiting the drive to de-carbonise for their own ideological ends. Some environmentalists are trying to reclassify intermittents-friendly gas as a low CO2 fuel!

    My interest in all this stems from my concerns about global warming, and what we can do. I cannot see how we can reduce CO2 output sufficiently without partial reliance on nuclear power, at least until we have a proper infrastructure for renewables. If you look at the countries of Europe with the lowest CO2 produced by electricity generation, they’re the ones with a substantial nuclear and/or hydro contribution. Not Germany or Denmark, who are the leaders in renewables.

    If we can make renewables work, fine, but it’s going to take longer than we can afford if we do it without other forms of low CO2 energy generation, and it’s going to despoil a large amount of land.

  31. One thing I find missing from this conversation, that’s directly related to the problems at Fukushima, is what can be done to improve the systematic problems with nuclear power in Japan while we continue to use it as renewables mature.

    As power consumers, there is very little we can do to change the overall discourse of energy policy, but it’s disconcerting that a monopoly with a proven track record of incompetence can continue to operate the same as it always has.

    I honestly don’t care where my power comes from, but I’m not a huge fan of financially supporting large corporations as corrupt as TEPCO. Much like I would never buy gasoline from BP, I just wish I had some way of paying for an alternate source of electricity, even if it was costing me more. I think that’s why I the idea of a smart grid is absolutely essential to the future health of electricity consumption in Japan.

  32. @George:

    You might get more control over where your money goes, but not where your power comes from, unless the undesirable providers went out of business. Once the power’s in the grid, it’s all mixed together…

  33. @George:

    I’m not sure things will be the same as before following the report. I’m hoping that the report compilers’ strategy of finding serious fault with all sides works for it and not against it. My gut feeling is that it’s a gift to Noda, who appears to be a politician with at least some ability to exploit divisions to get what he wants. But anyway, perhaps this is a conversation for the thread on the report.


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