Japan energy exchange

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116361778117740.jpg’, ‘Image courtesy of www.media.maps.com ‘, ‘More than 99 percent of Japan’s oil is imported—most from the Middle East. ‘);

While attending a wedding in Japan last winter, we spoke with a guest involved in negotiating an agreement to develop a new oil field in Iran that is expected to provide up to 6 percent of Japan’s energy. He mentioned Japan’s interest in ethanol but told us that ethanol manufacturing in Thailand created food shortages, so had been halted.

While our downtown Tokyo hotel was comfortably heated, we recognized that homes, restaurants and tourist facilities were uncomfortably chilly, so we often wore our coats indoors. Later, we learned that the low temperatures were part of a Japanese government program to save energy. Only 4 percent of their energy is produced from domestic sources. More than 99 percent of their oil is imported. Most of it is from the Middle East.

Japan is acutely aware of its energy vulnerability and has government programs to keep per capita energy use at half that of ours. Japan leads the world in the manufacture of energy-efficient hybrid electric vehicles, solar cells and high-speed trains as a result of long-term programs. Toyota continues to develop new designs based on alternative fuels, clean diesel, diesel hybrids, hybrids and electric cars and will soon lead the world in auto sales. In 2007, they will sell a car to Brazil that can run on 100 percent ethanol.

Japan’s new 25-year energy plan has met some problems. Pressure from the United States dramatically scaled back its participation in a new Iran oil field. Exxon Mobil Co. canceled its plans to sell Russian natural gas to Japan and agreed to sell it to China instead. Russia is delaying a second Sakhalin gas development involving Japan for environmental reasons.

This summer, a travel agent asked us to coordinate a visit to Illinois ethanol plants for University of Tokyo researchers. Suddenly, the trip was canceled. Just as suddenly, it was re-scheduled—this time for engineers from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

The Mitsubishi engineers intend to assess the feasibility of developing ethanol manufacturing facilities using either rice, wheat or sugar cane. The program’s goal is to reduce Japan’s reliance on imported oil and to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Since Japan imports 60 percent of its food, they will import the raw commodities for the ethanol. They are starting with a 3 percent ethanol blend and expect to reach 10 percent by 2010.

According to the GAIN agricultural report, a Japanese firm has developed a nanotechnology membrane to reduce the cost of ethanol dehydration and has invested in Brazil to improve ethanol production and supply. Ethanol dehydration is an energy intensive process that removes the last 5 percent of the remaining water. If the technology proves successful, it is likely to gain wide industrial acceptance as it would lower costs and save energy now used in dehydration.

Since biofuels are gaining global acceptance as a replacement for oil, technological advances in their production will continue. But critics remind us that their role is limited, and their production raises other environmental issues. While finding replacement fuels is helpful, dramatic changes in our inefficient transportation practices are crucial in reducing global climate change.

From the Nov. 15-21, 2006, issue

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