Biomass Power: Pillar of a New Japan?

Recent events in Japan may fuel a new push toward renewable energy as the country reevaluates its energy portfolio.
By Anna Austin | May 24, 2011

In the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant incident, a result of the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated Northeastern Japan on March 11, the country’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that Japan will push toward more renewable energy—solar and biomass energy specifically—as pillars of a new Japan.

The road to achieving that goal appears to be long, as renewable energy in Japan has been slow to develop. In 2008, biomass, solar and wind combined accounted for about 1 percent of the renewable energy produced, most of which is generated from biomass heat. That same year, renewables accounted for about 4 percent of the country's total energy generation, compared to 11 percent in the U.S., or 40 percent in Sweden. Since then, the percent of renewbles has fallen to 2 percent. 

 Nuclear power has been thriving in Japan since the 1970s, and today it accounts for 30 percent of the country’s electricity generation, ranking it third in world production (see chart on page 42). The World Nuclear Association projects that number will rise to 40 percent within the next six years, and though the Fukushima incident may slow that progress, it is still likely to reach that number unless there is a drastic shift in renewable energy development.

Japan imports nearly 80 percent of its energy requirements, mainly because of the high electricity demands of its extremely dense population, and a significant lack of its own natural resources. Japan leads the world in liquid natural gas imports—virtually importing all that it consumes—as well as coal imports, and is the second-largest net importer of oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

A 2010 report released by the “Japan Renewable Energy Policy Platform,” the first renewable energy white paper to be published in the country, states that Japan’s renewable energy market has remained in a grounded state because market policies for renewables have not been sufficiently examined or implemented.  It points out that to expand the renewable energy market, it will be necessary to provide financial support, develop infrastructure to encourage participation by citizens and communities, and establish a new social system based around the social consensus of potential environmental impacts of renewable energy.

But even if these things are done, does Japan have enough renewable resources to continue to grow its biomass power industry? Satoshi Hirata, deputy director of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology’s Biomass Technology Research Center in Kagamiyama, Higashi-Hiroshima, believes it does, though it is limited to certain biomass resources.

Exploring Renewable Resources

As is the case with other densely populated areas, there is an abundant supply of municipal solid waste (MSW) in Japan, and the country is no stranger to waste-to-energy technology. It is the largest user of thermal treatment of MSW in the world, consuming 40 million tons per year. Since there are only about 190 MSW power generation facilities out of about 1,900 incineration facilities in Japan, there is still room for growth, including refuse-derived fuel (pellets made from MSW) opportunities, according to Tsuneo Kusuda, chief researcher at the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth.

 Outside of MSW, there isn’t enough land to grow energy crops on a scale that would make a significant difference in power generation, according to Hirata. That’s mainly due to the fact that Japan is quite small—the country’s entire land area totals about 145,902 square miles, compared to the U.S. with more than 3.5 million square miles—and about 73 percent of that land is forested, mountainous and not usable for agricultural, industrial or residential use.

However, there is a small amount of unused residue available from major food crops grown in Japan—such as rice, corn and wheat—that amounts to about 14 million metric tons per year, according to the Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. “Rice hulls are not used in combustion processes because they contain a lot of silica,” Hirata says. As is the case with the biomass power industry in other countries, he says combustion is the dominant commercial conversion process, as gasification is still in between demonstration and commercial stages.

The amount of woody biomass in the country is a slightly different story. “There are abundant woods, so the [woody] biomass power industry does have potential for expansion,” Hirata says. On forested land in general, there are just under 62 million acres. According to a 2008 survey of annual potential amounts of woody biomass in Japan, prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, it is estimated that on average nearly 35 million metric tons of wood residuals are available annually in Japan from logging, forestry and construction activities.

While wood waste left in the forest—about 8 million metric tons annually—and residuals are expected to be increasingly utilized as fuel in coal power plants, they are still quite limited, according to Yoshinao Ogawa, director of the department of renewable energy in Japan's trade and industry ministry. 

And importing additional biomass resources doesn’t pencil out, according to Hirata, who doesn’t believe that importing biomass resources to Japan is economical. “It’s more economical to import biofuel or biochemicals than feedstock materials,” he says.

Sven Teske, renewable energy director at Greenpeace International’s Climate & Energy Unit, agrees that Japan’s biomass resources will only go so far, but says if done right, it could still make a difference. “Using residuals, especially in cogeneration power plants, could increase the bioenergy share,” he says.

The cost of collecting and transporting these resources, however, are challenges that have yet to be overcome.

Still, Hirata says the industry does seem to be growing. That may be evidenced by the February 2011 commissioning of the country’s largest 100-percent wood-fired power plant.

Facility Snapshot
The 33-megawatt (MW) Kawasaki biomass power station took less than two years to build, as foundation work began in the fall of 2009. It is fueled by 180,000 tons of wood chips per year, mainly wood waste collected from construction sites in Japan’s Kanto region. Kawasaki Biomass Electric Power, Japan Bio Energy Co. Ltd. and its holding company jointly operate the plant.

Though the Kawasaki plant was a milestone for the industry, the first wood-fired power station in Japan capable of generating more than 10 MW was fired up beginning in 2006 by First Energy Service Co. in Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. There are several other commercial woody biomass-only plants across Japan, including Gonoike Bioenergy Corp., a 21-MW power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture that is owned by two companies including Mitsubishi Corp.; and Agatsuma Biopower, a 13.6-MW power plant in Gunma Prefecture that is owned by Orix Corp. and Tokyo Gas Co. Ltd.

According to Hirata, there are 61 boiler and turbine power generation plants (excluding refuse incineration plants) that utilize biomass, as well as 10 gasification and gas engine plants, and 14 power plants that are cofiring biomass with coal.

Whether the nuclear crisis will help spur growth in the biomass energy industry, Hirata says that it’s a possibility, but points out that nuclear can’t be replaced with just biomass energy.

In the Future

Making use of the wood debris from the earthquake is a good start moving forward, and the Japan Forestry Agency has a plan to utilize the waste materials left behind in the Tohoku region. The agency has requested JPY 300 million ($3.7 million) for the project that would subsidize local communities’ purchasing of crusher machines. About 80 percent of the estimated 25 million metric tons of disaster debris is believed to be wood materials.

   The solar sector is by far the most heavily subsidized renewable energy sector in Japan, but Hirata says there are some subsidies and tax incentives for the installation and operation of small-scale biomass energy plants. None are on a national level, however.

Teske says the most effective incentive that could increase biomass power generation or renewable energy, in general, in Japan would be a feed-in law, and a bonus for heat generation. “We see bioenergy cogeneration power plants as an important player within a smart energy system,” he says.
Increasing renewable energy generation is particularly important in Japan, especially in the aftermath of the nuclear incident, from Teske’s perspective. “The share of dangerous nuclear energy is over 20 percent,” he says. “After the Fukushima disaster, Japan will have to fill the gap as fast as possible, with a mix of renewable energy technologies.”

 Biomass, solar photovoltaic and hydropower will make substantial contributions to electricity production, and in particular, nonfluctuating renewable energy sources, such as biomass and geothermal will be important elements in the overall generation mix, according to Teske.

 With the right policies in place, and the development of a sustainable bioenergy supply chain, he adds, biomass utilization in the country could speed up. “By 2030, we think the primary energy share of bioenergy could at least be increased by a factor of three,” Teske says.

Author: Anna Austin
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4968
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