Japan’s new energy minister: More of the same

In his initial press conference, newly appointed Japanese energy minister Nishimura Yasutoshi called for restarting nuclear power stations to secure stable energy supplies. He announced there would be no policy change regarding Japan’s involvement with the Sakhalin-2 LNG project in the Russian Far East.

This choice of main topics of the news conference is typical for the public discourse here about energy policy and security:
1) Talk about whether to restart nuclear power or not
2) Talk about securing fossil fuel imports
3) Do not mention investment into offshore wind
4) Do not mention investment into grid expansion

Topics 3) and 4) are critical for weaning Japan off fossil fuel. 1) is a mere stop gap solution at best. Many nuclear stations shuttered after 2011 are too old for operators to make the necessary investments to bring them up to current safety codes. It wouldn’t be economically viable. The reactors whose restart is being promoted are equivalent to about 1/3 of the pre-2011 nuclear generation or roughly 10 percent of the pre-2011 annual electricity generation. While not trivial, it’s not a game changer. For that, Japan would have to embark on construction of new stations, which would be likely to run into political resistance at the local and national level.

Construction of new nuclear power stations will run into cost issues (see Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, Flamanville/France, Plant Vogtle/Georgia USA, Hinkley Point C/UK, etc). Many of these high profile nuclear projects by different companies in various countries have been billions of euros, dollars and pound over budget and years behind schedule. This seems to be a common theme. To build nuclear power stations takes a decade or more, which means capital is tied up for years and years before the first power flows ever into the grid. For example, construction at Flamanville started in 2007 while fuel loading will not take place before 2023, i.e. 16 years later. Or take Olkiluoto 3, where construction started in 2005 and as of 2022 i.e. 17 years later it still is not operating.

By contrast, large solar or wind projects tend be completed in 2-3 years at most.

As a country with a long coast line Japan has huge wind power potential which will complement its solar potential but it is way behind the curve compared to China, European nations or the US. Almost all renewable energy other than hydro power in Japan has been photovoltaic.

To maximize the potential of renewal energy which will often be found far from population centers, Japan needs to build long distance High Voltage DC (HVDC) lines so power from Kyushu and Hokkaido can supply Tokyo and Osaka.

Offshore wind and HVDC are near absent in the public energy debate in Japan. The Japanese economy suffered “lost decades” after the burst of its 1980s’ investment bubble. Unless it invests in offshore wind (and also geothermal power) and a HVDC grid backbone, it will suffer another lost decade in a delayed energy transition.

So why is the government not acting? The interests of Japanese utility companies on one side and of Japanese power consumers and of the planet as a whole on the other are not aligned and politicians of the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition are picking the wrong side.

Japanese utility companies own existing assets such as old nuclear power stations and thermal power stations. The longer they can utilize these assets to generate and sell power, the more money they will make. If they were forced to buy zero-carbon wind power from third-party offshore wind farms in Hokkaido or Kyushu they won’t be able to sell as much power from their own coal-burning or nuclear power stations in the Kanto or Kansai. Utility companies are still building new coal-burning power plants today. They don’t want to see these plants shuttered but to contribute to their profits for the next 20 years and more.

If we let them get away with it, it would be disastrous for trying to minimize the scale of the climate change threat. Climate change will devastate Japan through hurricanes, flooding, landslides and rising sea levels. The political leaders of Japan need to prioritize the interests of the power consumers and of everyone threatened by climate change. Currently they are acting as lobbyists for the utility companies.

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Russia’s Gas Blackmail

Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s dependence on Russia for gas supplies rose as high as 55% in 2020.

The first gas pipeline connecting Germany to the Soviet Union crossed the then Czechoslovak border at Waidhaus. The Transgas pipeline crossed the former Soviet (now Ukraine) border at Uzhhorod (Russian: Ushgorod). Via Ukraine it connects to Belarus and Russia. Even during the cold war it reliably supplied Germany with cheap Soviet gas.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, its largest successor state Russia has had disputes with several of its ex-Soviet neigbours, including Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. These countries were earning transit fees from gas exported through their territory while also buying some Russian gas for their own use. As long as large consumers in the west were relying on the same pipelines as Russia’s immediate neighbours it wasn’t possible for Russia to halt gas supplies for example to Ukraine as a method of blackmail without jeopardizing long-term lucrative contracts with Western European customers.

That is why Russia came up with the plan to essentially duplicate the existing pipelines through these countries with a more costly set of new pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic sea that went directly from Russia to Germany, without crossing other countries.

The primary purpose of Nord Stream 1 (NS1) and Nord Stream 2 (NS2) was to destabilize the European countries hosting the existing transit pipelines and to expose to Russian energy blackmail. When Germany signed up for NS1 and later NS2, it clearly understood this motivation on Russia’s side but, with active lobbying by ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, it chose to turn a blind eye to the implications. To Germany it was somebody else’s problem.

Well, the chickens have come home to roost: Now it is Germany that is being blackmailed and extorted by Russia while the Baltic states and Poland are already independent from Russian supplies as they have sought out supplies of LNG instead. Germany is still working on making that switch.

On June 13, Russia cut the flow of gas through NS1 by 60%. It blamed this on a turbine at the Russian compressor station in Vyborg (between Finland and St Petersburg) that needed to be refurbished in Canada. The Canadian government was reluctant to return it to Russia because of sanctions.

Eventually a deal was reached between Canada and Germany to return the turbine to Germany, which could then send it to Russia. However, that is not the real story: Germany’s economy minister Robert Habeck made clear that this is just Russia’s excuse and not the actual reason for cutting supplies. Germany can also receive gas from Russia via pipelines that terminate in Mallnow (Yamal-Europe pipeline) and Waidhaus (Transgas). Right now, no gas enters Germany through Mallnow and all the gas that eneters via Waidhaus is fed via NS1 in the north, not Transgas in the east. As separate pipelines, Yamal and Transgas do not depend on the NS1 compressor station and turbine. On top of that there are also multiple turbines at Vyborg, which is why any single one being out of service is no cause for major disruption.

What Russia is doing is to intentionally throttle gas supplies to Germany to prevent it from refilling its gas storage sites. Germany is aiming to fill its storage sites to 90% or more of capacity by November 1 so that it can get through the winter without being subject to Russian blackmail. The less gas it receives now when demand is relatively low the more difficult that goal becomes.

In 2015, a year after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, a subsidiary of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom bought Germany’s biggest gas storage site in Rehden near the northern city of Bremen. Rather than fill the site before winter as is usual to insure against supply disruptions, Gazprom has kept this site nearly empty for the past year or so. Normally companies use cheap gas in Summer to fill storage sites to have sufficient gas available when demand is high. Without storage if gas flow through the pipelines is stopped there will be no immediate alternative to keep homes warm and the economy running. Germany has now taken control of the storage site had been steadily refilling it until the recent supply cuts.

Right now gas flow through NS1 is completely suspended for annual servicing but the big question is if supplies will resume after 10 days or if Russia will come up with a different excuse. It is playing mind games with Germany. If Germany can not fill its storage and Russia choses to cut supplies during the winter then this will create political pressure on Germany to do whatever Putin wants it to do. It’s an effort designed to split the Western alliance and to end Germany’s support for Ukraine, which already is somewhat half-hearted compared to eastern NATO members or the United States.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, Russia’s highest priority with gas supplies is not to make money but to project imperial power. Gazprom is part of an empire, not a business. Russia has already sacrificed its position as a reliable energy supplier for political purposes, i.e. an attempt to restore Imperial Russia. There is no going back now. Even if Putin were to lose power, Europe will never again make itself dependent on Russian supplies. It will transition to alternative gas supplies and non-fossil energy as quickly as possible. Russia’s biggest cash cow will soon become worthless, long before gas wells would normally have run dry.

The transition to a non-fossil future may be difficult and expensive, but it is necessary because of climate change and Putin’s blackmail of several countries may end up greatly accelerating it. To get through the transition, Europe needs to work together to maximize alternatives to Russian oil and gas. It must not give in to blackmail.