It’s not often that the decentralized energy spotlight is shone into Japan, yet, with the ‘fallout’ from the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant still in the air, there is a good deal of interest in how the country will realign its energy and electricity policies. The greater use of gas to generate power in thermal plants has been the short-term answer, with the resulting increase of increased imports of expensive natural gas. Could cogeneration also benefit?

The current status of CHP is healthy – Japan has nearly 10 GWe of CHP generating capacity in place, four-fifths of this in the industrial sector and rest serving commercial buildings and, through micro-CHP technology, homes. After a long period of strong capacity growth in the 1990s and up until 2008, growth then almost halted until last year, when 400 MW of new plants were added.

Japanese street scene
All this according to a new report on the status of and prospects for CHP and district heating and cooling (DHC): Country Scorecard: Japan, published under the International Energy Agency’s CHP/DHC ‘Collaborative’.

The prospects for CHP are less certain – it’s hard to say whether the growth in capacity in 2012 represents the start of a new, post-Fukushima upward trend. But there is considerable room for optimism, says the IEA. It suggests that the market for CHP may develop around three main opportunities: possible new policy incentives for CHP following the tsunami; continued support from the government and Japan’s gas industry for micro-CHP; and a growing role for flexible CHP systems to work within smart energy networks.

With reform of the nation’s energy policy under discussion, Japan has the opportunity to stimulate new large-scale cogeneration capacity by ensuring that electricity exports from plants to the grid are fully rewarded. The country also has the opportunity to build a major export industry for micro-CHP units, particularly those based on solid oxide fuel cells, a technology area in which Japan leads the world’s development and commercialization efforts. A similar case could be made for decentralized energy generation schemes working within smart energy networks, including those based on district energy networks.

Japan has already achieved much more a gigawatt of new decentralized generation capacity; most of this being solar PV. If the country is also going to add new plants fuelled with imported gas, it would make sense to see that much of this operated in high efficiency mode – ie with heat recovery and use; as cogeneration.