HIRONO, Japan -- In the belly of a sprawling power complex almost 150 miles north of Tokyo, embattled Tokyo Electric Power Co. has hatched a plan to boost its bottom line and breathe life back into towns of Fukushima prefecture that were dealt a deadly hand in 2011 of monster earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
TEPCO's solution: "clean coal."
The utility plans to build what it calls the world's most efficient coal plant -- an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant -- on the seaside north of Hirono, a former coal mining town that had 5,490 residents before the disaster and about 1,400 now. The TEPCO engineer overseeing planning of the coal project says the venture will offer some 2,000 temporary jobs and help revive Fukushima and its weed-choked ghost towns.
"This is the most advanced, efficient technology in the world. We can get the world's attention," Yoshihiko Horie said during an interview in the seaside plant. "The people of Fukushima are coming back to where they used to live, so building this will ease their return."
The plant, which will not use carbon capture and storage technology, is a major component in TEPCO's vision for boosting the regional economy and replacing power lost in the wake of the 2011 disaster that shut down Japan's 48 nuclear reactors, triggering outages and price spikes.
TEPCO is being quiet about its partner for developing the technology, but it is reportedly working with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Corp. to build two 500-megawatt IGCC plants for an estimated $3 billion, one in Hirono and a second unit 15 miles south near the city of Iwaki that's housing many Hirono evacuees.
TEPCO claims the units -- technology that will be modeled off a 250 MW IGCC demonstration project near Iwaki -- would be the most efficient gasification plants in the world.
Although coal's share in Japan's energy mix remains unclear amid talks of a nuclear restart, success of renewable feed-in tariffs and looming climate discussions, TEPCO's project highlights a national push to promote and export "clean coal" technology around the world -- maybe even to energy-starved Ukraine.
But while no one opposes the revival of devastated Fukushima, the new life the technologies might breathe into coal is infuriating environmentalists pushing for more clean-power energy sources -- wind, solar, geothermal and efficiency regimes. They are decrying what they say is TEPCO's refusal to consider the project's generation of greenhouse gases.
Some warn there is an undercurrent in Japan surging toward a more carbon-intensive future. The Japanese Cabinet earlier this year approved a basic energy plan that positions coal and nuclear power as long-term power sources without setting specific targets for renewables.
"The two things about Japan that hurt are, one, they're going to expand coal and, two, that they're reducing nuclear. They're committing themselves to a higher-carbon-emissions future," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University who participated in crafting a 2007 study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the future of coal.
Japan's plan could have far-reaching implications.
The Obama administration and its European allies have pledged to prevent international credit organizations like the World Bank from funding coal plants. And under new restrictions backed by the White House, the U.S. Export-Import Bank is opposing coal plants in all but the very poorest countries unless they include carbon emissions controls. Congress has attempted to roll back those rules.
Japanese officials argue they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by exporting technology to burn coal more efficiently. TEPCO said its two new units will reduce carbon emissions 15 percent compared to its existing facilities.
Without access to highly efficient coal gasification technologies, developing countries are bound to adopt less efficient models that will exacerbate climate change, said Toshi Okuya, a special adviser to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
"If we will not give our most advanced coal thermal plant technology, they will introduce a Chinese thermal coal plant," Okuya said from his high-rise office in the heart of Tokyo. "These are very controversial discussions."
'Light of hope'
Downtown Hirono seems very far from global debates over greenhouse gas emissions.
In the community and neighboring towns, the greatest fears are of radiation in the wake of the nuclear catastrophe and lack of infrastructure, housing and jobs.
Hirono Mayor Satoshi Endo, 52, said the coal project will generate work in the hard-hit area and provide a clean energy substitute for now-idle reactors along the northeast coast. Hirono, notably, is about 17 miles south of TEPCO’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where the company is under extreme pressure to decommission the units and manage contaminated water.
"We need to accept as a town that's next to a nuclear plant ... this IGCC as clean energy that will substitute nuclear power," Endo said through an interpreter.
Endo noted that TEPCO's thermal plant is strategically positioned in Hirono, which was a coal-mining town in the 1950s and '60s. The 4,400 MW plant has four units that were built in the 1980s and '90s and are fueled by heavy oil and crude oil and two 600 MW units built in 2004 and 2013 that burn coal.
Endo said the community's embrace of IGCC technology does not stem from a fear of nuclear power but rather from a need for jobs.
"I think this will have a big effect," he said. "It's not just Hirono town but all the local governments along the coast. This is a light of hope for revitalization and reconstruction of the area."
Fukushima prefecture -- a longtime supplier of power to the Tokyo region -- has been under a microscope following the 2011 disaster. The mountainous, oceanside prefecture, slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, is home to towns that the government has said may remain vacant for decades.
The IGCC plant is just part of TEPCO's broader revitalization plan. Also on tap is a massive decontamination effort, the repopulating of towns and the reopening of J-Village, a national soccer training center that TEPCO has used as a base for tackling the Fukushima disaster but could be used when the 2020 Summer Olympics come to Tokyo.
Okuya pointed out that the government has established some clean energy development in the prefecture, including offshore wind and solar projects. Developers are also planning a liquefied natural gas terminal for Soma, Okuya said.
But tens of thousands of people have been unable to return home three years after the disaster (Greenwire, July 17).
Endo said Hirono is aiming to bring back 80 percent of the original residents through construction of the IGCC plant, which will begin operating in 2020, coinciding with the Olympics.
But he also acknowledged the town is in the midst of difficult discussions about where local governments should bury contaminated soil for the next three decades -- talks that will touch on compensation and could hamper repopulation.
"When we site the place, there will be some people who can never go back to their own home," he said.
Far from the hills and shorelines of Hirono in the megacity of Tokyo, Japanese officials tout the benefits of sharing the country's cutting-edge coal technology with the rest of the world.
Okuya, of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, pointed to Ukraine's need to replace three-fourths of its coal fleet that's more than 40 years old.
Ukrainian coal units cannot be replaced with gas or the country will become more reliant on Russia for gas supplies, he said, adding that the country must replace "coal to coal" and tap into its indigenous source of coal reserves.
Ukraine has a "bad track record" on financing new infrastructure and is unable to build new coal plants without international financial support, he said. Japan has already sent experts to gauge the rate of the coal plants' aging and how to replace the units but has not yet made a financial commitment, Okuya said.
"That's a big problem," he said. "We're discussing how to support" Ukraine.
The United States and the United Kingdom "want to stop giving international financial support to new construction of coal thermal plants," he said. "The U.S. doesn't want to see construction of new thermal coal plants. U.K. as well. That's one of the big problems."
And other questions remain.
James Wood, the U.S. Department of Energy's former deputy assistant secretary for clean coal, said Japan's research and development of IGCC could be very beneficial, noting that China is also at the forefront of developing IGCC technology.
"If it's as efficient as they say, that's very good. If it's as cost-effective as they say, that's good," Wood said. "Going forward, there are several paths that different governments, including the United States, are thinking about to help spur research and allow coal to be utilized and make it the famous, quote unquote, clean coal."
Harvard's Ansolabehere said the question is whether there's an appetite for such IGCC technologies, given that the major coal reserves are in the United States, China and India -- and developing countries are trying to meet energy demand cheaply. He also said Japan’s lean toward fossil fuels will more than likely complicate upcoming climate discussions.
"IGCC is much more expensive than pulverized coal, for example, so if you're a poor country, you're trying to deliver at a really low rate and IGCC might not work," he said. "That's going to be the limit on what the Japanese can do."
Environmentalists are unconvinced.
The Kiko Network, a climate advocacy group in Japan, said emissions from the two IGCC units would still be higher than gas-fired units and it's difficult to make comparisons. "And of course because these plants are 'new' constructions, these are additional emissions," the group wrote in a statement, adding that environmental reviews of the project don't account for carbon dioxide emissions.
"The fact that TEPCO [doesn't] consider its impact in the statement is clearly a problem," the group said.
Bruce Buckheit, a technical expert for the Sierra Club in Japan who worked in the Department of Justice's Environmental Enforcement Section and later was director of U.S. EPA's Air Enforcement Division, said TEPCO's IGCC units may be an improvement from existing pulverized coal units, but they aren't a "silver bullet" when it comes to fighting climate change.
Buckheit said Japan's underlying decision to support the use of coal is political -- not financial.
"In their narrow, selfish view, it makes sense for the country," Buckheit said. "But it's not good from the global perspective."
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