Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TIMETakes on Renewable Energy in Japan, Shows How Mainstream Media Fails Us

From TIME, December 22, by Coco Masters, A Japanese Town That Kicked the Oil Habit:
In resource-poor Japan, which imports 90% of its fuel, Kuzumaki is a marvel of energy self-sufficiency. Signs of the town's comprehensive focus on environmental sustainability are visible from its mountaintops to the pens of the dairy cows that once were the bedrock of local commerce. Atop Mt. Kamisodegawa, the 12 wind turbines, each 305 feet (93 m) tall, have the capacity to convert mountain gusts into 21,000 KW of electricity — more than enough to meet the needs of the town's residents. The excess is sold to neighboring communities.

Of course, the wind doesn't always blow. At Kuzumaki Highland Farm, 200 dairy cows share the power load. Their manure is processed into fertilizer and methane gas, the latter used as fuel for an electrical generator at the town's biomass facility. Nearby, a three-year project sponsored by Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's New Energy Development Organization (NEDO) uses wood chips from larch trees to create gas that powers the farm's milk and cheese operations. The bark of other trees is also made into pellets for heating stoves used throughout the community. A local winery, for instance, has two such stoves, and Kuzumaki pays residents up to 50,000 yen ($490) toward the cost of installing one. All told, clean energy generated 161% of Kuzumaki's electricity last year.
Wait, so is “gas that powers the farm's milk and cheese operations” being used to generate electricity? The “heating stoves” that burn tree-bark pellets? Masters thinks so, or doesn’t know how to write. Further on in the article, Masters is pessimistic about wind, sun, and bio because “[i]nvestment in the town's projects — paid for by local tax revenues, private investors and the prefectural and central governments — totals $50 million. That's about $6,000 per resident, an amount that would pay the electricity bill for an average Tokyo family of four for more than seven years.” If this really meant that a family of four can recoup its investment in seven-eight years, it would make all the sense in the world to invest in these energy sources at once. Besides, that $50 million investment is producing 161% of Kumazaki’s electricity requirements, which provides for 14,500 people, not just the 9,000 Kumazaki residents? And wouldn’t that make the investment more like $3,450, which should be recoverable in four-five years?

Of course it doesn’t work like that, since there are such things as running costs. In fact, these numbers only make sense within a broader range of data that Masters appears to be totally ignorant of. This is symptomatic of the entire article, where Masters belches forth a scattershot array of disconnected factoids that fail to make a meaningful connection to our energy future.

The entire article is nothing more than preconceptions and anecdotes loosely strung together. And that’s par course for the course where mainstream reporting on Japan is concerned. At this rate, all we’ll be left with will be the wire services.

ADD (December 24): In fact, what I thought was Masters’ greatest error appears to be… but let me explain. Note that the $6,000 investment is per resident while the “average Tokyo household” that the it is debited to has four members. So I was off by a factor of four? Stupid me? Not so fast. The $50 million total investment most likely includes non-electricity items (heating stoves?), and the average (2005) has only 2.94 members. So wouldn’t all that make the investment recoverable in twelve-fifteen years, not a great bargain, but not that unreasonable as a long-term investment, particularly given the prospects for energy prices. It all depends on maintenance and other running costs and the life expectancy of the fixed investments. We also don’t know what the economies of scale will look like if these projects could be replicated on an industrial scale or alternatively mass produced. But such speculation only brings up the next question: Why haven’t the authorities been able to give this all an effective nudge by judiciously applied subsidies?

Going through these questions one by one, fact-checking, consulting experts, etc., is what we expect professional journalists to do. Failing to do so sends this article to the limbo where reports that aren’t even wrong are condemned.


Janne Morén said...

"And that’s par course for the course where mainstream reporting on Japan is concerned."

I'd rather say that's par for the course where mainstream reporting on science is concerned. This article is all about the science; that the town happens to be in Japan is incidental to both the article and its many and obvious faults.

I mostly gave up on mainstream media reporting my field accurately long ago; perhaps it's time you did the same for yours?

www.japaneconomynews.com said...

Typical of this writer and publication. This author once claimed that the gas tax was an example of Japan's commitment to environmental concerns. Never heard the name Tanaka?

Jun Okumura said...

You’re right, Janne, this is a case of faulty science and more broadly the lack of basic numeracy within the mainstream media that you’ve pointed out in a previous comment.

As for “the gas tax [being] an example of Japan's commitment to environmental concerns”, www.japanecnonomynews.com (nice handle there), it exposes not only a total lack of historical perspective, but ignorance of the overall Japanese tax system for energy sources. (Hint: It’s not climate-friendly, and also has a serious flaw where SOx-NOx emissions are concerned.)

I got a very funny comment in my email about Coco Masters which I am not at liberty to repeat here. At least, though, she’s not deliberately manipulating the facts to make a political point, which is more than can be said for Toko Sekiguchi, whose misdeed for TIME I chronicled back in the day. With regard to the environment, I thought Bryan Walsh used to do a credible job for TIME, and wasn’t that bad on Japan either, during the brief period he worked here.

Bonus question: What Spanish word rhymes with Coco and Toko? Just askin’.

www.japaneconomynews.com said...

Jun, yeah, when I'm logged into Gmail my username always comes out like that.

Jun Okumura said...

If you want to blog under your real name or any other online identity regardless of your email status, you can just edit your Blogspot user identity.

Martin J Frid said...

Thanks for finding this gem. I never read Time and always wondered who needs this kind of journalism. Or the lack of it.

Japan "imports 90% of its fuel" is also making no sense at all. Hmm, conveniently forgot to mention uranium, then? As far as I know, noone counts how much "fuel" a country imports. Does the writer mean to say oil??

21,000 KW of electricity? Not much. To compare, Japan's wind power industry installed about 185 megawatts (MW) of capacity in the year ended in March, 2008.

Jun Okumura said...

Martin: You are one of the people with whom I can agree or disagree, but always cordially.

I don't know where she got that 90% figure, actually. I know it can't be fossil fuel supply, of which we domestically produce only a few percent, if that. My guess is that she's using numbers that refer to nuclear energy as non-imports at the primary energy level.

I trust you on the wind power total, which shows how difficult it is to find good locations in Japan.

Incidentally, your comment made me take another look at my post, which revealed that I'd made an elementary error in making what I thought was a damning case against Masters. Unfortunately, my correction (in an addendum) did little if anything to enhance the value of her report.

Mutantfrog said...

Well, isn't 100% of the uranium imported? It sounds to me like Japan is likely importing more than 90% of total fuel. No?

Jun Okumura said...

O Amphibious Altered One:

You’re forcing me to fact-check, and the more authoritative voice of METI says:

石油ショック後導入された天然ガスや原子力の燃料となるウランは、ほぼ全量が海外から輸入されているため、2005年 のエネルギー自給率は水力等わずか4%です。 なお、原子力の燃料となるウランは、エネルギー密度が高く備蓄が容易であること、使用済燃料を再処理することで資源燃料として再利用できること等から、資源依存度が低い「準国産エネルギー」と位置付けられています。石油ショック後、原子力の導入が促進された結 果、「準国産エネルギー」を含むエネルギー自給率は2005年には約18%となっています。

For the Japilliterate, it means that domestic sources met 4% of Japan’s overall energy requirements in 2005, but 18% if you count nuclear power as “quasi-domestic energy”, since “uranium is energy-intensive and easy to stock, spent fuel can be reutilized as a fuel source by reprocessing, and so on (the omnipresent 等)”.

I report, you decide.

Martin J Frid said...

That of course would mean that they are pretending that the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori prefecture is up and running, which it is not. Wishful thinking from METI, and the tax payer is still not getting anything even close to energy self-sufficiency.

There must be a better source than METI, but hey, it is the holiday season.

Jun Okumura said...

You said it, not me, Martin. And a belated happy holidays to you too.

Ken said...

Thanks Jun. I never actually noticed the ハンドルネーム part of the profile, probably since I never actually read the profile options.

Anyway, Martin has a good point in that even defining what constitutes as "fuel" is somewhat open to debate, though there can be no doubt that Japan is heavily reliant on imports in this sector. Perhaps Tamogami might have been able to frame his arguments into a push for domestic renewable energy sources? ;)

Jun Okumura said...

Ken, I'm not disputing Martin's point at all. In fact, if I weren't a METI alumnus...