As the nation burns more coal to replace lost nuclear capacity, power producers are able to duck pollution standards by building coal-fired projects small enough to avoid national regulator scrutiny, critics say.
About a third of 45 new power-generation units fueled by coal won’t face the government’s environmental assessment because their small size puts them under the review level, according to Kiko Network, a Kyoto-based environmental group.
Coal’s role is under debate as resource-poor Japan grapples with the Fukushima disaster’s shutdown of all nuclear plants and plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. While operators say smaller plants can be built faster, their exemption from national-level inspections is a sore point for foes.
“Big coal plants pose more serious problems,” said Kimiko Hirata, Kiko’s international director. At the same time, she said, “if you build 10 small units, that equals a big one and small ones are inefficient. It’s a problem that there are plans for projects that can get away with assessments.”
Supporters of coal say not only is the fuel cheap, it is also able to supply continuous, reliable power — a requirement that renewables such as solar and wind have yet to fulfill. The latest technology means coal can also be burned more efficiently without producing as much carbon dioxide as older plants.
The coal rush comes as the nation prepares to fully open its power-retail market, which has long been dominated by regional utilities. Hundreds of newcomers in need of power to sell are emerging.
“It is very difficult to build a large-scale thermal power station because of needs for space and infrastructure such as a port” for nonutilities, Nippon Paper Industries Co. said by email. Nippon Paper plans two small coal plants.
Small plants allow for speedy development, Nippon Paper said, adding that it is conducting voluntary assessments.
The nation’s reliance on coal has been rising to make up for lost nuclear capacity after Fukushima. Despite some of the world’s most generous incentives for clean energy, coal accounted for 30 percent of Japan’s electricity generation in fiscal 2013, up from 25 percent in 2010 before the disaster struck.