During the past two months, I have spent some time in Japan and, no particular surprise, they are in deep trouble regarding energy supply. The great Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster set them back to square 1945, and they will need to reinvent the country again. I have a sense they will ultimately recover, but only with the right decisions.
Fukushima was a repeat of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: nuclear devastation symbolic of a nation already in decline. I again visited these two atomic-bombed sites, and found the vitality and metamorphosis remarkable. Can the nation rebound a second time? Clearly, nuclear fission will never again become an option for the country.
Japan is too crowded for biomass, not sunny enough for solar and has limited wind potential. While they are number two to Germany in solar photovoltaic cell sales, the fact of the matter is that, like the rest of the world, the total amount of renewables used today is far less than five percent of the total energy used, with most of this being hydroelectric power. Furthermore, the winds and sun are intermittent, and can safely accommodate only up to 20 percent the electricity load. What can they do about the remaining 80 percent, plus ground and air transport requirements? These challenges, actually, are also faced by the rest of the world, but Japan has to address them right now.
First, forget more fossil energy, easy to do, for they have essentially none anyway. It would be smart to ignore this option, for there will soon be something like a carbon tax, as global warming won't be ignored for too much longer. Mind you, nothing much might happen for as long as a decade, but someday, when the crunch of peak oil and global warming results in something catastrophic, irrational steps will arbitrarily be taken. Japan could well be at an economic advantage under these conditions. They do have some potential for marine methane hydrates (MMH), but the cost will be astronomical and, although there could be twice the amount of energy in these deep sea deposits compared to all the known coal, oil and natural gas resources, MMH is too dispersed and difficult to harvest.
Second, geothermal energy seems attractive, for onsens (geo-spas) can be found throughout the country. Their current geo-production is on the order of 500 megawatts, around half that of a nuclear power plant. So even if they can increase geothermal electricity by a factor of 10 (and this won't happen because very little of this resource approaches the temperatures needed to make the effort worthwhile) they won't even match the production of all those nuclear facilities now decommissioned in and around Fukushima.
Third, become truly serious about energy conservation. Room fans are flying off the shelves, so people are already anticipating an uncomfortable summer. Use of people movers, escalators and elevators, will mostly be halted, major cities will darken in the very early evening, companies will face a long recessionary period and life will become supremely inconvenient for the populace.
But I can offer a possible solution. The ocean is the only productive answer for Japan. They don't have much in terms of current, tidal and salinity gradient resources. Waves are possible, and this country has had several pioneering projects, with yet another one being planned. Certainly, continue this development, but I've long worried that this option will never become truly competitive, mostly because of the cost required to protect these devices from major storms.
Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) remains as the best marine alternative. Japan's only successful experiment, led by Toshiba and Tokyo Electric Power Company, occurred 30 years ago on Nauru. Unfortunately, yet another natural disaster, a hurricane this time, wiped out the experiment. OTEC can be used to power a grazing plantship, where the economic opportunities would include: next generation fisheries, marine biomass plantations (from which methane and various biofuels can be produced at sea), electricity (plus hydrogen can be electrolyzed) and freshwater. Certainly, these platforms can be utilized to capture the the sun and winds, too. Of particular intrigue is the potential to prevent hurricanes and remediate global warming.
Yes, there are, further, the exotic options:
1. Solar power plant in space, with Japan already leading the R&D of this option. But at $21 billion to provide electricity for just a fraction of a nuclear facility, the costs are way too high.
2. Nuclear fusion remains a long term option. Japan is leading the international consortium on materials research for this technology, but commercialization could well be in the neighborhood of 2050, and only with a lot of luck and necessary funding.
So, faced with the need to make immediate decisions, the sea around them is clearly the future for Japan. It was once the top shipbuilding nation. South Korea replaced them eight years ago, and China looms to become #1 in 2015. However, Japan has the basic infrastructure to build those floating platforms, and can return to prominence through the Blue Revolution.
For the past two decades, I have provided at least a dozen lectures in Japan to spark interest in the ocean as the ideal venue for international cooperation, most recently to the Japan Marine Technology Society. The opportunity is now at hand for the country to take the leading role in partnering with the world to develop the Pacific International Ocean Station (PIOS), the proposed ocean version of the International Space Station (ISS). This outer space effort cost more than a hundred billion dollars, but produced, essentially, nothing.
The organizers of Blue Revolution Hawaii have already discussed Japanese participation in PIOS, for Shimizu's Green Float concept is very similar to our vision. Suddenly and dramatically, that 9.0 earthquake thrust the Blue Revolution into a commanding position as the optimal solution for Japan's future. At only one percent the cost of the ISS, PIOS can establish a marine pathway for economic progress, not only for Japan, but the rest of the world. Japan, if it chose to, can assume the leadership role for this magnificent global enterprise, and take that important step towards a progressive recovery.