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Japan risks wasting US$56bn in new coal-fired power stations — report

Hirono power station, located about 3 km north of Hirono, Fukushima, Japan. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Japan risks losing $56 billion (6,223bn yens) over the next 10 years by building coal power plants it won’t be able to use, a report released Wednesday warns.

According to researchers from the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Japanese coal-fired power stations stand a high chance of becoming stranded assets as the capacity planned or currently under construction exceeds the supply required to replace the retiring fleet by 191%.

Overcapacity, combined with competition from other forms of generation such as renewables, means much of Japan’s new coal capacity will be uneconomical. 

Since 2014, Tokyo has been encouraging a major expansion of coal-fired generating capacity. Currently, the country has four coal plants with a combined capacity of 1.9 GW under construction, but there are another 49 plants in various stages of planning. Together, they would add another 28 GW of capacity to Japan’s power system, the researchers say.

According to Ben Caldecott, director of the Sustainable Finance Programme at Oxford, new coal-fired power stations in Japan also face increasing competition from other forms of generation capacity, which have lower marginal costs, such as renewables.

“The idea that the power sector will remain relatively static and ‘safe’ for new coal-fired power stations is counter to the evidence we see internationally across the G20,” Caldecott said in a statement.

To examine the scale of potential stranded coal assets, the researchers developed three illustrative scenarios, reflecting different speeds and scales at which risk factors could realistically materialize.

They concluded the total of coal plants to be left in the lurch could be equivalent to between 23% and 29% of the current market capitalization, and 5%-6% of total assets of Japan’s power utilities.

The report also highlights the risks for Japan of going ahead with the planning and development of new coal-fired power plants.

Japan risks wasting US$56bn in new coal-fired power stations — report

The Asian nation has been highly criticized for its lack of commitment to cutting CO2 emissions. Its goal of reducing them by 18% between 1990 and 2030 is less than half of Europe’s, which have raised questions about Japan’s ability to deliver, since the target relies on atomic energy, which is very unpopular after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Last month, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco) announced it planned to build 1,300 megawatts (MW) coal-fired power stations to replace old oil and gas plants at Yokosuka, near Tokyo, with operations to start from 2023.

Tepco will build two 650 MW ultra-super-critical plants, which typically get the most energy from coal through the most advanced technology available for commercial use.