FROM THE ARCHIVES: Japan scrambles to find alternative energy sources a year after nuclear disaster

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 10, 2012

REMAINS OF THE DAY: Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, where 74 pupils were killed when a wave breached the protective dyke and engulfed them. One year on, work to clear the debris of the community has nearly been completed. Th
REMAINS OF THE DAY: Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, where 74 pupils were killed when a wave breached the protective dyke and engulfed them. One year on, work to clear the debris of the community has nearly been completed. The piles of jagged concrete and twisted cars are getting smaller. As for the school, only the shell remains. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Japan is scrambling to find alternative energy sources as the lights go out at its nuclear power plants this year.

On Feb 20, Kansai Electric Power shut down its last nuclear reactor, leaving only two in the nation still in operation, out of a total of 54. By the end of next month, the remaining two will also be turned off for regular maintenance.

Before the disaster at the Fukushima plant on March 11 last year, nuclear energy supplied a third of Japan's power needs, while coal, oil and natural gas supplied slightly more than half.

People like Assistant Professor Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear researcher at Kyoto University, have long pressed for the nuclear plants to be shut down immediately. The Fukushima disaster has boosted their cause.

"Nuclear reactors are extremely dangerous as they produce very toxic, radioactive by-products. I am confident that existing fossil-based power stations will be able to supply all the power that we need," he said.

Will they?

So far, the gradual switch to fossil- based energy after March 11 has proceeded smoothly, with the country experiencing no unintended power blackouts.

Despite the unusually frigid temperatures this winter, power companies have not had to appeal to consumers to save power even though demand sometimes exceeded 90 per cent of peak supply.

But fossil-based power plants, on which the country is now increasingly dependent, are not without their own problems. Since last July, there have been more than 10 instances of operational problems, fuelling worries of instability of supply.

To address fears of a potential power shortage, the Japanese government is considering deregulation to boost the development of alternative energies.

A government panel has drawn up plans to relax rules in 183 energy-related fields to encourage the construction of mega plants for the production of solar, geothermal and wind energies.

Currently, renewable energies account for only about 1 per cent of Japan's energy needs. Deregulation is a means by which the government hopes to boost that figure to 3 per cent in three years.

For instance, existing laws limit the size of a power plant to 50 per cent of the area of the land it stands on.

Stripping away such rules would enable the building of much bigger plants and hence the more efficient generation of power.

The government also proposes to allow geothermal and wind power plants to be built in Japan's national parks, which is currently illegal.

It is even eyeing the use of the country's nearly 400,000ha of unused farmland, of which about 170,000ha is deemed suitable for building solar or wind power plants.

The only snag is that much of this dormant land lies scattered around the country, requiring the use of land swops or other means to consolidate them into bigger properties for building power plants.

Recently, the government has shown interest in exploring for methane hydrate off the coast of central Japan.

Methane hydrate - an ice-like substance consisting of crystallised methane gas molecules trapped in water - can be used to produce methane gas for use in gas-fired plants.

The seabed surrounding Japan is believed to contain enough methane hydrate to supply the country with 90 years' supply of natural gas.

In the meantime, efforts are being stepped up to find more efficient ways of using energy .

One post-March 11 innovation being explored is a new type of building material for use on the walls of buildings to generate power from sunlight.

This material, which uses organic semiconductors and is thinner and lighter than traditional solar panels, when applied on one or two skyscrapers, is said to be able to produce the same amount of electricity as a large-scale solar power plant.

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