Historically, Japanese officials have a proud record of steering the domestic power industry along the lines written in national policy and strategy. Bureaucrats paved the way for Japan to harness its hydro resources; develop its coal; then shift to crude oil and nuclear; and pioneer the mass transport of a super-chilled molecule that’s now critical to the nation’s electricity grid.
At first, this prowess seemed to transfer to the age of renewables. In 2012, a newly minted FIT program started a boom in solar generation. But a decade in, progress has stalled, all at a time when the latest government Basic Energy Plan points to a further doubling of renewables capacity this decade. This year’s heightened energy security concerns also suggest more effort on the renewables front is necessary.
There are many well-documented factors behind the recent slowdown in solar. Yet, upon examination, METI bureaucrats have determined that perhaps one of the main ones is: They lost control of the conversation.
Mass-scale construction of infrastructure involves a complex dialog between stakeholders, including local governments, citizens, utilities and others. When Japan’s power industry was covered by less than a dozen companies that took care of everything from fuel to electrons and delivery to the client’s socket, METI could guide that conversation. Yet the nature of solar and wind power, with hundreds of small and medium-sized players involved, and the market’s 2016 liberalization, has created a very different set of circumstances that perhaps caught officials by surprise.