Energy policy reactions to Fukushima

May 18, 2011

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Our initial concern over the nuclear disaster in Japan was personal as we wondered how the event affected a former student and her family. Assured they are fine, we turned our interest to how Japan would replace the 12 gigawatts of electrical generation capacity lost.

Jone-Lin Wang points to the adjustment Japan made in 2007 after losing 8 gigawatts of electrical production when an earthquake struck. Most of the gap was filled by importing more liquefied natural gas and oil; Wang expects Japan will again increase these imports.

Others think solar and wind energy can fill a significant portion of the gap. According to the Associated Press, Japan’s Prime Minister announced scrapping plans to obtain 50 percent of their electricity from nuclear power plants by 2030. Instead, the government intends to add renewable energy sources and conservation as key components of their energy future. No estimates were given for relative proportions of future energy sources.

In an article in Solar Today, Seth Masia states that distributed PV could prove to be a low-cost alternative to increased imports of natural gas. If Japan dramatically increases its use of solar electricity, it could help reduce a glut in the supply of solar modules stemming from a world demand of 22 gigawatts for 2011 while China alone can produce 35 GW per year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a nuclear advocate, stunned the world with her response to the nuclear disaster in Japan. According to Christian Schwagerl in an article appearing in Yale Environment 360, she declared, “We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible.”

With roughly 75 percent of their electricity coming from coal and nuclear, it will be a tremendous challenge to replace these energy sources with renewables and efficiency within a few decades. Her “energy turn” would place considerable reliance on offshore wind generation. If successful, renewable technologies will be one of Germany’s most important sources of income and employment.

China produces 70 percent of the PV modules globally and provides 50 percent of the installations in Germany and the rest of Europe. China’s manufacturing dominance is a result of its industrial policies while our economic decline comes from manufacturers, merchants, investors and governmental policies directed at investments outside the United States.

As Noam Chomsky explained in Human Intelligence and the Environment, our government and corporations began rebuilding our economy to maximize the use of fossil fuels in 1940. Efficient rail service was replaced by cars and trucks. Oil dependence increased with federal funding of interstate highways, airport expansion and tax deductions of interest payments on homes making the suburbs possible. Government supported a transition to industrial agriculture, computers and the Internet.

Chomsky indicates these were choices made by government officials and corporate decision-makers. They have created a society that has proven extremely difficult to move toward a sustainable future.

Merkel has reconsidered the risks of continuing business as usual, and has chosen a renewable energy future for Germany that will establish the extent to which a modern society can be based on renewable energy and efficiency.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the May 18-24, 2011 issue

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