The last of Japan’s 54 nuclear energy reactors was turned off for routine maintenance on May 5th; it is unlikely to resume operations. When the third reactor at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido prefecture closed for maintenance, the country was left with no electricity generated by a nuclear plant for the first time since 1970. The disaster at the Fukushima plant has resulted in nuclear reactors in Japan being turned off one by one. As each reactor is shut down for routine maintenance, the plant supervisors have refused to give permission to turn them back on under pressure from local governments and residents. This is an understandable reaction to a disaster of epic proportions, but with no alternative energy sources in place, Japan’s energy future hangs in the balance.
Rolling summer blackouts
About a third of Japan’s energy was supplied by nuclear plants prior to the Fukushima disaster, the threat of rolling blackouts in the summer months looms. The Japanese government has been plugging the holes in the energy dyke with liquid natural gas. The price of importing this fossil fuel is high. Not only is the reliance on fossil fuels detrimental to the environment, but the local residents will have to bear the increased costs of electricity. A 15% reduction in usage will have to be improved upon to deal with the increased summer energy requirements.
Rising energy costs and rolling blackouts will have a very negative impact on industry. This has trade minister, Yukio Edana, nervous about the economic future of Japanese businesses. He has been lobbying to have two reactors, taken offline at the Ohi nuclear plant, restarted in a bid to alleviate projected power shortages of 20% in the area. This controversial step has not won favor with the general populace. Activists argue that investing in renewable sources of energy will stimulate the economy and solve the energy crisis.
Profits before people?
Robert Jacobs, professor of Nuclear History at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, argues that the bid to restart the reactors is an economic choice and another example of the Japanese government putting profits before people: “The government of Japan and the power companies are dedicated to restarting the reactors. This is primarily for two reasons. First, they believe that the longer the nuclear plants remain offline, the harder it will be to eventually restart them. So they are determined to restart the reactors just to keep them viable. This is a political choice. The second reason is because the power companies have invested so much money into the nuclear power plants (half of their assets for some of them) that they do not want to see those investments become worthless.”
Proponents of the scheme argue that cuts in energy supplies will have a terrible effect on Japan’s already floundering economy. Massive government bailouts and industrial losses caused by the earthquake and tsunami could spell economic disaster for Japan. Last year saw Japan’s biggest trade deficit ever, with the country hemorrhaging an additional $100 million dollars a day.
A move to sustainability
Japan’s long term solution to the energy crisis relies heavily on renewables with a target of 25 to 30% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2030. The recent approval of a ‘feed-in tariff’ system will help to encourage reliance on solar energy. Hiroshi Hamasaki, a renewable energy expert at Fujitsu Research Institute, claims that the new “feed-in” tariffs are so popular that the number of solar installations could increase over 200 times over the next three years. To expedite proceedings, the government has eased restrictions on land use for solar and wind power and relaxed regulations on small hydropower projects and drilling for geothermal energy.
Renewable energy sources are popular with the Japanese people. The ‘feed-in tariff’ programs are backed by superb Japanese technology in the solar energy field. The incorporation of renewable energy into the Japanese electricity supply grid will take time, but it is ultimately the best possible direction in which they can go.
Utility bills in the province of Ontario have been steadily creeping upwards, placing a strain on households and increasing the production costs of industry. It’s bad for local residents and very bad for business. Worse still, many are predicting that bills could double in the next 15 to 20 years. Exactly who or what is to blame for this hydro mayhem remains a topic of hot debate. Several critics have leveled an accusing finger at the McGuinty government’s Feed-in-tariff programs, but are they really to blame?
The current state of affairs
As we move away from coal (the last plant will be closing in 2014), the province is relying heavily on nuclear power and, once extensive refurbishments have been completed, 80% of the province’s power will be provided by nuclear plants by 2030. Renewable energy constitutes a very small percentage of the energy pie (shared between wind, bio-energy and solar).
Currently underway is the refurbishment of two reactors at the Bruce A nuclear power plant. In addition, two new reactors are in the planning stages. The total investment into nuclear will be more than $33 billion which is said to fulfill the province’s energy needs until 2035. The project is already 2 years behind schedule. A 15% increase in consumption by 2030, as well as an aging nuclear fleet, has required the government to spend an enormous amount of money on refurbishments. It’s the cost of these refurbishments that must be borne by the long-suffering consumer.
Natural gas and nuclear facilities get large subsidies when market price falls below guaranteed price. This happens “almost all the time” according to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario who goes on to say; “The latter subsidies involve 70% of the global adjustment monies paid out, simply because they pay for the delivery of much more power. In fact, the Ontario Power Authority paid out $1.35 billion in 2010 to meet gas and nuclear power purchase agreements.”
The cost of renewable energy
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario released figures for what renewable energy costs the average household. “In 2010, the Ontario Power Authority paid electricity resource costs of $317 million for conservation programs, and $269 million for renewables. That is a lot of money – but you must realize that it is recovered over a total Ontario consumption in 2010 of 142 terawatt hours (that’s 142,000,000,000 kWh), which amounts to 0.4 cents per kWh (split roughly equally between conservation and renewable subsidies). So the cost of conservation and all the renewable subsidies in 2010 amounted to 0.4 cents of the 13 cents we paid for a kWh in our homes.”
In addition to the environmental benefits of renewable energy, the growth that these industries have created in Ontario has been invaluable. Private Sector Investment in Ontario will total over $21 Billion by 2018. There are over 60 manufacturers and over 1000 aboriginal community-based FIT projects are bringing much-needed revenues to Ontario communities. A recent study showed that the solar industry had been responsible for over $2 billion in investments in 2011 alone, creating an estimated 8,200 jobs. A number which will increase to 11,400 in 2012 with 25 jobs created for every megawatt of energy installed by 2018.
As the cost of resources increases, nuclear energy becomes more and more expensive as does natural gas. A recent review of the Feed-in-tariff program saw a 30% reduction of rates paid by the government. Most of this reduction was absorbed by the drop in prices for solar panels and other components. As renewable energy technology improves, solar power collection becomes increasingly efficient and cheaper. To blame our high hydro prices on renewable energy and specifically the feed-in-tariff programs is a fatuous representation of the true costs of electricity.
Solar energy is good for the environment and your well-being
Much maligned in recent years for causing skin cancer, sunshine is back in fashion. Natural light affords us considerable savings on energy and provides for our general well being. The elevation of mood that occurs when you wake up to a sunny day, or when the sun shines after a rainy day is your body’s way of saying what’s best for you.
A sunrise a day….
Not getting enough sunlight can increase your chances of getting cancer by up to 70%. Insufficient supplies of vitamin D (which is produced when skin is exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun) negatively affects your bone density and immune system. This leads to a plethora of diseases:
- Adrenal malfunctions and autoimmune disorders including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis
- Colon cancers, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
- An in allergies
- Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Infertility and PMS
- Type one and two diabetes
- Learning and behavioral disorders
- Heart disease and obesity
- Cavities, osteoporosis and psoriasis
Lack of natural light affects your circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are endogenous cycles that all living things follow throughout the course of a day. Natural light is the trigger for various biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes. The presence of natural light directly affects circadian rhythms and therefore general well-being by disrupting sleep patterns. A lack of sleep leads to a decrease in performance and alertness and symptoms resembling jetlag.
Several studies, dating back to the 1940’s espouse the need for natural lighting in the classroom. Most recently, studies by Hathaway (1994), Taylor and Gouisie (1980) and Hawkins and Lilley (1992) showed a significant increase in concentration, an improvement in mental
attitude and vision and an increase in levels of comfort and happiness when students were taught in classes that were naturally lit. Students who work in artificially or poorly lit classrooms suffer increased hyperactivity. Natural light (at least 20% of the wall space should be devoted to windows) fosters increased student achievement. Perhaps the most significant study in this regard is one conducted by the Heschong Mahone group in 1999. The study was conducted in more than 2000 classrooms across three school districts and it showed that students in the best lit classrooms scored 20% higher on math tests and 26% higher on reading tests than students in artificially lit classrooms.
In addition to the health benefits that natural lighting offers, it can also offer warmth. Utilization of passive solar thermal massing is an increasingly important aspect in Net Zero Energy Buildings (NZEBs). NZEBs produce all the energy they consume through a combination of insulation, passive solar heating and renewable energy technologies. This reduces greenhouse gases and increases the quality of our environment. Although renewable sources of energy (like solar photovoltaic cells) are utilized, thermal masses inside the home and insulation of the walls, doors and windows must improve the energy efficiently of the home by 60 to 75% over standard guidelines in order to be dubbed an NZEB. Thermal masses work by absorbing natural sunlight during the day, storing the heat energy, and radiating it back into the house at night when ambient temperatures are lower. The effectiveness of the mass material depends on what it is made of. Thermal mass elements should be relatively heavy, good at conducting heat and dark or textured. The orientation of the building, to maximize the absorption of light, is critical in the effectiveness of passive solar technology. If the house is correctly oriented and the envelope provides appropriate insulation, thermal massing can reduce heating costs by up to 85%.