The demands for environmental protection and sustainability have increased in the past few years. For example, there have been the Paris Agreement, the SDGs, the Regional Circulating and Ecological Sphere (CES), the rapid expansion of decentralized energy systems (renewable energy), and the development of energy digitalization technologies. These have increased the expected role of local governments, which are considered as “the sites of the energy transition.” However, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed at the local level, including the lack of knowledge, the defective collaboration system, and the on-going issues at mega-solar power plants.

In this article, I will describe the current trends in local community-led energy transitions and discuss the energy policies and roles of local governments, which could play a central role in this transition.

The Energy ‘New World’

The energy world is now at a major turning point. In renewable energy generation, solar and wind power are expanding rapidly due to falling costs, and more than half of the world’s energy-related investments are now directed at renewables. A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicts that the price of renewables globally will be equal to or below that of fossil fuels by 2020.

In addition, the energy aspects of electricity, heat, transportation, and construction are becoming increasingly integrated. Converting the surplus electricity from solar power generation installed in zero energy houses (ZEH) into heat, storing it in renewable batteries and electric vehicles, and sharing it with neighbors will become more common. In addition, the wave of digitalization, including AI and blockchain, will push energy businesses to further accelerate the shift to small-scale, decentralized, networked operations.

Changes are also Happening in Japan

Previously, renewables in Japan accounted for about 10% of the country’s electricity, and most were from large hydropower, but solar power has surged since the introduction of the feed-in tariff system in 2012.  Solar power accounted for 6.7% and renewables for 17.5% in FY2018.

Hourly electricity data reveals a larger change. For example, between 10:00 to 12:00 on Sunday, May 20, 2018, the supply of renewables alone exceeded the total demand in Shikoku. In the same month, Kyushu and Hokuriku also had times when their renewable energy production met 90% of their energy demands.

Fig1. Shikoku May 20, 2018

Source: ISEP Energy Chart “Electricity Generation and Demand” Shikoku May 20, 2018 Data.

There are still many steps the country needs to take, including setting long-term energy goals, reevaluating the feed-in tariff system, fixing the shortage of transmission lines, continuously reforming the electricity market, and creating a heat policy. But the shift to decentralized energy is starting to happen in Japan, and businesses are starting to take off.

Struggling Realities and Expectations of Local Governments

Against this backdrop, local governments are expected to be the center of the energy transition at the local level. Some municipalities have been working for many years on renewable energy and energy savings and have integrated them with community development, while others are struggling with local conflicts associated with large-scale solar power development. Local renewable energy policy is necessary because energy has a significant impact on the future of a community.

A nationwide survey conducted on municipalities about renewable energy in 2017, conducted by Hitotsubashi University and the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and others, shows their current situation (the survey was sent to 1,741 municipalities, with a response rate of 79.4%). The top three reasons for promoting renewable energy were “the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” “the production and consumption of local energy,” and “the revitalization of local communities.” While these are quite reasonable, it is rare to find a local government with a concrete plan to revitalize the region with renewable energy.

When asked about issues related to the use of renewable energy, more than 20% of respondents indicated “the lack of necessary know-how and experience, “the difficulty in raising funds for the project,” “the potential for conflict between the project operator and residents in the area,” and “the possible negative impact on the landscape.” These highlight the difficulties in expanding renewables.

In response to a survey about renewable energy-related policies conducted by local governments, more than 30% of respondents chose “installation of solar panels on the roofs of public facilities, etc.” and “plans and guidelines for promoting the introduction of renewable energy,” as well as “subsidies and/or support for the installation of renewable energy facilities” in the private sector. On the other hand, the proportion of local governments that have taken more advanced measures, such as “enacting ordinances to promote the introduction of renewable energy,” “procuring electricity with consideration of the percentage of renewable energy,” and “consideration of establishment of a regional power producer and supplier,” accounted for less than 5% of the total.

In addition, many local government officials expressed their concerns about practical matters, such as “having little idea of what to do despite creating a plan and a vision, since most work was done by external consultants,” “not being able to obtain cooperation from other departments,” and “not being able to find a partner to work with in the community.”

Possibilities for Local Renewable Energy Policy

Despite such challenges, energy policy and the role of local governments will become even more important in the future. In Iida City, Nagano Prefecture, a city with a population of 100,000, the local government has succeeded in connecting community energy projects to the building of a sustainable community and is providing support for it. Nagano Prefecture has enacted policies on energy saving and renewable energy from the perspective of “making the local economy more muscular.”

Simply put, the era to “promote renewable energy by raising awareness and providing subsidies from a limited budget for the sole purpose of preventing global warming” is coming to an end. From now on, we must connect energy issues to regional issues, formulate energy policies while considering cost-effectiveness, and use renewable energy and energy saving as a tool to change the future vision of the region. It is also important for local governments to support local initiatives from the background. Next time, we will begin examining this by introducing case studies.

Text: Noriaki Yamashita (Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies)
オリジナル掲載:『地球温暖化』「地域から始めるエネルギー転換 − 自治体の政策と役割」(2019年9月).