The world’s advanced economies have committed to phasing out coal over the next seven years. But not Japan, which stands alone in insisting it can make coal less harmful to the planet.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the country’s largest coal-fired power plant in Heikenan, a small city in central Japan where 400,000 tons of black piles are scattered across a plot of land the size of 40 football fields.
Starting next spring, Jera, the company that owns the site, wants to prove it can blend ammonia — which doesn’t emit carbon dioxide when burned — with coal in its boilers. The use of this new technology is sparking a debate about whether it is better to find cleaner ways to use coal, or to phase it out as quickly as possible in favor of renewable energy.
The company says the ammonia method can reduce dangerous emissions in the fight against global warming. In an effort initially conceived—and heavily supported—by the government of Japan, it is one of several energy companies planning to use ammonia in a process marketed as “clean coal.”
With ammonia, companies can “use the plants we have instead of building completely new ones,” said Katsuya Tanigawa, general manager at the Heikenan site in Gira.
Japan derives nearly a third of its electricity from coal, one of the world’s dirtiest energy sources. But critics say the use of ammonia increases Japan’s dependence on fossil fuels and could increase carbon emissions as ammonia is produced. Burning ammonia can also produce nitrogen oxide, which is toxic to humans and is another emission that must be managed.
“We need to reduce emissions from coal power plants now, not explore a technology that may or may not work,” said Katrin Petersen, senior policy advisor at E3G, a think-tank.
Concern in Japan about energy has grown exponentially since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. Immediately after the disaster, Japan shut down all of its nuclear plants, shutting down 30 percent of the country’s electricity supply overnight. To compensate, the country’s energy companies rushed to build new coal-fired plants even as the world was moving away from fossil fuels.
Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, recently stepped up efforts to restart the country’s nuclear power grid, but the communities hosting the plants have resisted.
Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has few of its own natural resources, and can produce only 11 percent of its energy needs without fuel imports – One of the lowest rates of self-sufficiency among the richest countries in the world.
At a meeting of environment ministers from G7 leaders in Sapporo this spring, Japan was the only country to refuse to commit to cutting coal use to zero by 2030.
The country’s government and energy industry cite many obstacles to building renewables quickly, including Japan’s geographic isolation, mountainous terrain, deep sea waters, and annual typhoon season.
Besides China, which President Xi Jinping recently said will follow its “rhythm and intensity” in cutting carbon emissions, Japanese officials say their country has its own timetable and methods, too.
“We want to climb the same mountain to the same summit,” said Atsushi Kodaka, director of the Office of Energy Strategy at the Ministry of Commerce. “But our climbing path doesn’t have to be like everyone else’s.”
The energy industry is also reluctant to give up coal because it has spent so much recently building new plants. Since 2011, Japanese power companies have built 40 coal plants — nearly a quarter of Japan’s total coal-fired power grid — with the new Jera plant coming online last month.
Together with the industry, the Japanese government has set aside about 152 trillion yen (about $1.1 trillion) over 10 years to help the country achieve net zero carbon emissions. By 2030, the Commerce Department says, it will reduce coal-based generation to 19 percent of power supply, with ammonia technology making up about 1 percent, and is likely to rise.
Jera knows she has to convince a potential audience skeptical of her plans, and so she runs advertisements in movie theaters and hands out discount coupons promoting her efforts to develop “zero emissions thermal energy”.
Japan also hopes to eventually export the technology to its neighbors in Asia, having helped build new coal plants in recent years.
“We’re trying to reduce dependence on coal itself in such countries,” said Masashi Watanabe, a natural resources and energy planner at the Ministry of Commerce. “Co-ignition of ammonia could be one solution.”
In Hekinan, welders recently secured the top of a 700-tonne storage tank at the sprawling Jera plant. Several large orange tubes were laid strewn across the ground, waiting to be installed into a pipeline that would carry the ammonia to the plant’s boilers.
During a recent test, the company mixed a mixture of 0.02 percent ammonia with fist-sized pieces of coal in a kettle heated to 1,500 degrees Celsius, more than 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Achieving her next goal will be an even bigger challenge.
By March, the company wants to start testing mixtures of 20 percent ammonia, becoming the first company in the world to do so.
Even if the technology works, purchasing a steady, affordable, and clean supply of ammonia could significantly strain the global supply of the compound, which is essential for fertilizer production.
private government Green growth strategy He acknowledges that if all of Japan’s coal-fired plants used 20 percent ammonia, “they would need about 20 million tons of ammonia annually”—equivalent to the entire volume of ammonia currently circulating on the global market.
These supply constraints made the ammonia plan “almost impossible,” said Hajime Takizawa, a climate and energy researcher at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, an independent, government-funded research group. However, the government says that once the technology is proven to work, suppliers will meet demand.
But producing ammonia itself requires electricity, which under current methods is typically generated from fossil fuels like coal or natural gas. In one common process, water is heated to extremely high temperatures — up to 2,000 degrees Celsius, or 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit — so that hydrogen atoms can be separated and combined with nitrogen. (Check your high school science textbooks for the chemical formula for ammonia!)
It takes a lot of energy to heat this water, and the supply of ammonia that will initially flow to Japan is likely to be supplied using so-called gray or brown electricity. So while burning ammonia in a power plant reduces carbon emissions in one place, making ammonia may generate more carbon emissions somewhere else.
As a result, the ammonia method has “very little mitigation potential,” Masayoshi Iyoda, head of the Japan team, told 350.org, a climate activist group.
Suppliers say they will eventually use renewable energy to make ammonia or capture the carbon released during the production process and bury it in the ground. Analysts say that given the costs of such approaches, blending ammonia and coal would be more expensive than simply using renewable energy such as wind power directly.
Ultimately, critics say, Japan is prioritizing ammonia technology to protect entrenched industrial interests against new renewable energy suppliers. “They are very aware that they are losers in this transition,” said Kimiko Hirata, founder of Climate Integrate, a research and advocacy group. “So it’s really big on protecting the status quo and vested interests for as long as possible.”