Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What does Japan's energy troubles teach us about our own?

I came across Mark Pendergrast's new e-book after reading a blog post he did recently for Renewable Energy World.  Japan has very few traditional energy resources at its disposal so it relies on fossil fuels imports and nuclear power to power its economy.  After the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the tsunami of March 11, 2011, popular support for nuclear power in Japan fell rather dramatically (as one would expect).  Imported fossil fuels for electricity generation, notoriously expensive anywhere in the world, became it's sole source of energy and put Japan in a tough position to re-grow its economy.
Japan's Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World

Japan now has a major incentive to adopt energy efficiency measures and install renewable energy systems which is what Mark wanted to explore with his book Japan's Tipping Point.  He does a great job of detailing the sustainability initiatives that have been promoted in different parts of Japan and providing commentary on their efficacy.  Despite major structural reasons to the contrary, the Japanese seem to continue thinking in a pre-Fukushima way.  The conclusion you become forced to consider is that they might not make the leap to the next generation of power infrastructure anytime soon.

I worked for a Japanese company (SANYO) a couple of years ago, based in the US to develop solar energy projects with their solar modules.  At the time, SANYO was the 7th largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic modules and had the most efficient panel that was commercially available.  I was brought on as the solar leader of a new organization called the US Environmental Solutions Division.  The stated purpose of this division was to bundle various SANYO products with a clean energy focus together as a total solution sale.  It sounded like a great initiative at the time but ended up appearing to be more of a PR exercise to make SANYO branded products more attractive during its acquisition by Panasonic.  While I spearheaded a couple interesting projects like a solar charging station in Portland, OR, there was not much appetite for significant solar market development plans.

OMSI solar electric vehicle charging station for e-bikes and e-cars in Portland, OR

My experience with the Japanese left me with the impression that they will be hard pressed to make the difficult decisions they have to make to move off fossil fuels.  While SANYO was a world leader in solar panel production, they have now slipped out of the top ten.  The leadership seemed to be resting on their laurels for cell efficiency and this has allowed competitors to catch up to them and gobble up market share. Sharp and Kyocera have also lost ground to Chinese and Korean competition.  I saw confusion, indifference, and fear in SANYO with respect to exploring new ways to promote solar products in the US.  In a rather obvious application for solar, they wouldn't consider installing more than a token amount of their own modules on their own new solar wafer and ingot factory opened in Oregon in 2009.  This sort of project challenged their entrenched way of thinking; hype was more important than actually accomplishing something innovative and highlighted how collaboration across internal divisions was extremely difficult.

So what lessons does this teach us in the US?  As I've written before, Americans are cursed with substantial fossil fuel resources under our own soil.  With the Japanese being "blessed" with paltry resources and still unable to take decisive action towards renewable energy, things don't look so great for renewable energy in the US anytime soon.  The Japanese are not alone in their resistance to change with respect to energy.  The US with a population of almost 2.5 times that of Japan has about the same amount of installed solar PV.  US leaders continue to talk about nuclear as the hope for the future despite the obvious safety and economic troubles with it and despite no practical hope for new reactor additions anytime soon.  Wind farms get rejected for aesthetic reasons while coal continues to be our primary fuel source for electricity.
Bike & electronics charging solar canopy (concept)
Regardless, I continue to remain convinced that solar technologies will trump our other current energy options in a rather short period of time.  The cost curves of solar and it's O&M advantages with respect to everything else will win out; the environmental benefits will merely be icing on the cake.  Once we make the decision to go solar, the build out period will be much faster than most people realize.  I don't think the path to our solar future will be clear or easy however.  Some sort of major shock will have to get us all on the same page.  I would have thought Fukushima was that sort of shock for both Japan and the world.  Maybe not.  It's a naive thinker, however, who bets on things staying the same when radical change is the new normal.