Japanese power utilities are struggling to keep up with the rapid rise of solar energy. Tokyo shut down its nuclear reactors after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and while some are getting ready to come back online, other power sources like LNG and renewables have had to pick up nuclear’s slack. But as the New York Times reports, those in charge of making sure electricity makes its way from producers to consumers are finding their jobs a lot more difficult these days:
Utilities say their infrastructure cannot handle the swelling army of solar entrepreneurs intent on selling their power. And their willingness to invest more money depends heavily on whether the government remains committed to clean energy. […]“The homework wasn’t done,” said Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency. Utilities, he said, need to install more hardware — transmission cables, substations and the like — and develop new kinds of expertise to avoid disruptions. “To make renewables work in reality, they have to be properly connected to the power system.”
There’s always a hint in these discussions that its the greedy utilities standing in the way of progress, and to be sure inertia is a part of this, but the fact remains that distributed power generation is something of a paradigm shift for power providers, and puts enormous strain on the grids that transmit that power.As Japan is finding out, transitioning to renewables entails a lot more than just incentivizing producers to install panels and turbines (though that comes at a tremendous cost, and Japanese subsidies are the highest in the world). Adapting grids to account for a host of small new producers requires buying up new land, digging up old cables, investing in new substations, and devising new software to manage the suddenly multi-nodal power network. That’s neither a cheap nor easy to-do list, but it’s something policymakers have to take into consideration when drawing up new green energy plans.The costs of solar are higher than they first appear.