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Fuel cells, nuclear power, solar energy and the way forward for Japan

May 1st, 2009 · Greg Atkinson · 3 Comments

The global economic downturn is hurting most developed nations and at present, most governments around the world are focused on supporting their economies via a range of economic stimulus packages. But in my mind a good stimulus package should not only be cost effective and support future productivity, but it should also position a nation for the eventual recovery in the global economy. In that respect Australia could learn a lot from Japan where contrary to what is conveyed in the western media, a great deal of thought and common sense goes into government spending packages and long term planning.

A few months ago I was walking around some new homes on display here in Fukuoka, Japan, and one thing that grabbed my attention was the range of alternative/renewable energy options you could have built into a new home. In addition to a few solar power options there was also the possibility to have a fuel cell installed and this was something I had never seen back in Australia. Now home fuels cells in Japan are not cheap and it is only because the government provides a subsidy that it makes any economic sense to install one, but the fact that Japan is pushing ahead with this technology highlights the difference between what we feel is long term planning in Australia, and how the Japanese view long term planning. It is also a good example of how well though out government spending actually is in Japan.

I will not get into the technical details of how fuel cells work etc. but for those who are interested this article form MSNBC is quite good: Fuel cells in the home? Japan is big on idea

After hearing about home fuel cells I decided to do a little more research with the aim of trying to find out why the government in Japan was pushing the technology quite aggressively. At first I wondered why the government would provide a subsidy for a technology that really is not quite ready for widespread use. You see the problem at the moment is that a fuel cell does not save a home-owner money because the unit costs more over its life cycle (they do not last forever) than it will save them in reduced energy costs. This is one reason the government hands out a subsidy if you install a fuel cell in a new or existing home.

The home fuel cells I am talking about use natural gas and are more energy efficient when compared to using energy derived from conventional energy generation. They also help reduce Co2 emissions and and basically non-polluting. So the technology is promising but needs to be further refined, and as a consequence the government aims to support the market for this technology so that:

  • Companies developing fuel cells do not go bankrupt while trying to fine tune the technology.
  • Japan can reduce it’s dependence on coal. (probably Australian coal)
  • Fuel cells can eventually help reduce pollution and Co2 emissions.
  • Japan can reduce it’s level of energy imports.

Hopefully at some point in the future there will even be an export market for these products. In 20 years time if Australian homes have fuel cells they will be most probably made by Toshiba or another Japanese company and sadly it will be another example where we have the resource in abundance (natural gas), but we fail to move up the value stream and develop the technology to use it.

Another example of course is Uranium. Australia has vast reserves of Uranium and what do we do with it? We dig it up and ship it overseas, where other nations use it as an energy source (we hope) and also develop the associated technology. Instead of Australia seriously looking into establishing even a small nuclear power industry or even just an experimental nuclear power plant, our government hands out money for people to install home insulation, much of which will be imported. Not exactly what I would call innovative long term planning!

Oh and by the way, filling in gaps under doors and windows is often just as effective as putting in home insulation so I wonder if I can get money for some putty? Or how about a government handout for double glazing windows? Probably not..for It seems it is pink bats or nothing down under.

Another area where Japan is pouring in million of dollars into is solar energy. I am not talking about just building solar power farms but rather some serious spending on R&D activities in order to develop much more efficient solar panels for example. It is one thing to use solar power, but the really smart thing to do is to strive to be the worlds leading developer of solar power related technology. We have plenty of sun and space in Australia, so why should we not aim to be a world leader in the solar technology field?

Personally my favourite alternative energy source in Japan is based on a technology that converts vibrations into electrical energy, Apparently this has been installed on a bridge somewhere in Tokyo where the movement of vehicles generates enough power to light up some LED lights on the footpath. I can only assume that it is a busy road even late at night, or you just have to cross that bridge while the traffic is heavy!

The Japanese economy is certainly taking a beating, but even amongst all the gloom I see that steps are being taken to help Japan emerge as one of the winners when all this mess is over. There is no guarantee of course that these steps will succeed but at least there is some thought going into how to position the nation to take advantage of changing global trends. Sadly I do not see the same sort of long term planning taking place in Australia.

I fear that in 20 years time Australia will still be digging things out of the ground and growing food, much the same as we were doing in the 20th century. In 2020 we might very well be using alternative energy systems and technology at home, but these will probably not have been made or developed in Australia.

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Derek // May 2, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    There’s Ozzie companies working on it. Ceramic fuel cells, good potential artifical photosynthesis solar power blended hydrogen fuels

  • 2 Greg Atkinson // May 11, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for this Derek. I hope there is something in the budget to give this sort of R&D a kick along.

  • 3 Greg Atkinson // Jul 9, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Now this is the sort of initiative I would like to have seen taken in Australia instead of building school halls etc.

    Japan’s Public Schools To Go Solar By ’20

    TOKYO (Nikkei)–The government and ruling parties decided Tuesday to convert all 32,000 or so public elementary and middle schools in Japan to solar power by 2020 as part of its effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions, The Nikkei has learned.

    For starters, the government aims to raise the number of solar-powered schools to 12,000 by 2012, up from the current 1,200.

    An estimated 600-900 billion yen will be required for solar energy to be adopted at all public elementary and middle schools. In the fiscal 2009 supplementary budget, the government set aside subsidies that will effectively keep local governments’ burdens for installing such systems at area schools at 2.5% of the costs. In budgets for fiscal 2010 and beyond, the government could earmark the use of subsidies or grants.

    Schools are likely to use conventional 20kw solar panels. According to the Education Ministry, this is enough to power fluorescent lighting for one day in eight to 10 classrooms.

    If all public elementary and middle schools are solar powered, the amount of electricity generated will be on par with that consumed by roughly 200,000 ordinary homes a year. And the amount of carbon dioxide eliminated per school would be equivalent to that absorbed by a forest the size of the Tokyo Dome.

    The government plans to have excess energy bought and sold through a private-sector trading scheme.

    Last month, Prime Minister Taro Aso unveiled a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15% from 2005 levels by 2020. To reach this goal, solar power generation, which does not emit carbon dioxide, must be ramped up 20-fold from current levels.

    (The Nikkei July 8 morning edition)

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