Japanese “Revolutionary” Energy Strategy and the Internet

Last week, the Japanese government published the new long term energy strategy. It is available as a PDF file at the Prime Minister’s Website, and in Html format at Tokyo Shimbun. My comments here are based on the original PDF file.

There has been some confusion about whether the Cabinet actually approved this document this week, but Prime Minister Noda has cleared that point up. It has been approved.

With this post I want  to highlight a point not directly related to the question of which method of generation to choose or how to develop the grid.

This new strategy sees itself, right in the title, as “revolutionary”.

One thing revolutionary is that it wants to move away from a structure of large centralized utilities deciding unilaterally on what is best for the citizen, and in the direction of a distributed system with many small entities (including citizens themselves) generating electricity, and a much larger role for decisions by the consumer.

Germany is not only remarkable for the fact of having installed 30.2 GW of solar, the world record. It is also remarkable that most of those solar panels are owned and operated by the citizens. As blogged before:

42% of capacity is own by private citizens. Another 9% by farmers. Many other installations are owned by industry or specialized funds. The traditional electricity utilities own only 13%.

This is very similar to the development of the Internet, which also gave citizens a much larger role in telecommunications compared to a structure dominated by large telecommunication providers with monopoly status.

This idea is best expressed in a passage on page 8 of the strategy paper. Here it is in my translation:

This great change is not only about replacing nuclear energy with energy efficiency and renewable energy. It is about creating a new mechanism in which the citizens are not any more passively only consuming electricity. They will be, depending on their role, generators of distributed electricity, or actors in the effort of smart electricity savings. Once solar panels, batteries, and fuel cells will advance so much as to be a matter of course in private households and local communities, citizens will not only pay for electricity, but will also receive income from selling it. Just as the IT revolution in the 1990s, the main point of the “green energy revolution” is that we, all the citizens, are the main actors in bringing about this great change in society.

I agree with this sentiment. One of the advantages of solar and wind over coal and nuclear is that they work well at smaller scale, with solar working excellent at very small scale. Everybody can be a part of the system, just as with the Internet everybody can start posting on a blog or uploading videos to Youtube.

I recall blogging last year about Bob Metcalfe’s idea of an “Enernet”. I agree with him and the new Japanese “revolutionary energy strategy” that there is a lot to learn from the development of the Internet when discussing the transition to a citizen powered distributed network structure for energy.

One point Metcalfe makes is that the one thing you can be sure to expect is the unexpected.

For example, while the extreme drop in solar panel costs is great news for the fight against climate change, that was not expected to this extent. There will be other surprises ahead, not all of them positive. For example, the Arctic melt is proceeding much faster than expected as well.

This is a race between global warming and deployment of low carbon energy. It is very clear for anyone paying attention that a couple of decades from now energy will come from renewable sources. The only question is if that will happen fast enough.

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

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