Is the 'nuclear lobby' or geography to blame for slow progress of wind power in Japan?

It is widely known that Japan lags behind many countries in deploying wind power. Scholars and journalists are quick to blame this on the ominous nuclear lobby, other vested interests, Japan government's ‘old policies’, as well as bureaucratic ’intransigence and red tape’. But do logic and facts support these claims?

Let’s take the ‘nuclear lobby’ argument first since it is often used as an explanation for almost any energy policy in a country with nuclear power. There are indeed strong links between nuclear industry, utilities and the government in Japan, which is not surprising in the 3rd largest civil nuclear power in the world. It is quite possible that this nuclear ‘iron triangle’ promotes special interests. But why would it specifically lobby against wind power? Why not against solar and biomass (both growing much faster and potentially posing to capture a much larger market according to the 2015 Japan INDC) or against fossil fuel imports threatening national security?

The output of wind power in Japan has been so small that it could not really hurt anyone’s interests. And in the future, expansion of wind power could potentially give more contracts to heavy machine manufacturers involved in nuclear construction. This is what happened to Germany’s Siemens that used to be involved in nuclear reactor business and is now manufacturing wind turbines both within and outside Germany. Why can't similar Japanese companies like Toshiba, Mitsubishi and Hitachi take the same turn? Wind power could even justify more subsidies to electric power utilities which could own wind power installations, both onshore and offshore. So the ‘nuclear lobby’, or at least parts of it should be excited rather than dismayed about wind power.

Empirically, there is no evidence that the nuclear lobby affects wind energy policies of Japanese government. Moreover, these policies have not been as weak as it is often claimed. Logically Japan has everything to gain from wind power taking off, given its extreme dependence on imported fuels for generating electricity (which is close to 90% if nuclear power is excluded) and complications with nuclear power. This logic is confirmed by empirical evidence. In his article in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews Mizuno (2014) details over 20 different policies and technical measures adopted in Japan in the last two decades to stimulate wind power development. These include all possible types of policy instruments ranging from technical, information and R&D support to regulatory obligations, capital subsidies and market-based incentives. One could of course ask whether these measures have been strong enough.

There is evidence that they have been. The famous feed-in-tariffs (FITs) in Germany in the 1990s have resulted in a 100-fold expansion of installed wind capacity in one decade. Japan had a similar although less well-known scheme. Japanese utilities had a voluntary scheme of purchasing wind energy at retail prices which were close to 11 US cents per kWh in the 1990s, whereas at the same time FIT in Germany was 8 euro cents per kWh. Of course, some policy mistakes could have been made, but even under the perfect policies wind would not have taken off. Here is the evidence. The above mentioned, Japan’s INDC would presumably assume most effective policies learning from policy lessons worldwide. Still it projects only 2% of electricity from wind power in 2030, a far cry from Germany’s predicted 30%.

Let’s take the last argument, that Japan’s bureaucracy hampers siting, construction and connection of wind power turbines. If bureaucratic incompetence and corruption were the main obstacle to wind power, we would need to admit that it is more of a problem in Japan than in Brazil, China, India, Turkey and Romania, all of which installed more wind power than Japan in 2014, a proposition which is hard to accept.

If the nuclear lobby, wrong policies and incompetent bureaucracy cannot be blamed for the slow uptake of wind power, what can? Mizuno's (2014) thorough and careful argument suggests that the failure of wind energy is better explained by socio-technical rather than political factors. Japan has weather patterns with high rate of typhoons and lighting which make the current wind power technology (originally based on Danish 1980s designs) unsuitable for Japan. Secondly, areas with high wind are remote from areas where most people live and the Japanese grid is fragmented into 10 regional sub-grids some of which even operate on different frequencies. Thirdly, the geography and landscape conservation regimes do not allow dense construction of wind turbines. All in all, the onshore wind potential of Japan is only about one-sixth of Germany despite its larger territory. It costs at least 2 times more to construct a wind farm in Japan than most anywhere else in the world.

When we in Europe think about wind power we often imagine wind turbines harmoniously located on German or Southern Scandinavian farmland with a steady breeze from the Baltics. But that can't happen in every country. We do not expect any nation to generate 95% of its electricity from water as Norway does. We don't blame Germany for having one-quarter of hydro-energy production of Japan. What applies to water may apply to wind: some countries just do not have the right type of wind in the right places. This is good to keep in mind before jumping to conclusions about incompetent policies, corrupt bureaucracies and vested interests.