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Japan’s biomass boom

In July 2012 Japan revised its feed-in tariff (FIT) scheme expanding it to include biomass to stimulate utilisation of unused domestic wood sources. Around 124 wood-based power projects totaling 1.7 GW of capacity have been approved. Yet domestic wood fuel production has not kept up sparking concerns over competition and imports.

Domestic pellet production (tonnes per annum) is growing steadily. The sector is characterised by a large number of small plants (figure courtesy Japan Pellet Club).

Domestic pellet production (tonnes per annum) is growing steadily. The sector is characterised by a large number of small plants (figure courtesy Japan Pellet Club).

Over two-thirds of Japan’s land area, around 25 million ha, is under forest cover. About 40 percent of these forests are plantation forests. The total growing stock is increasing by around 100 million m3 annually, and has reached approximately 4.9 billion m3.

According to the 2014 “Annual Report on Forest and Forestry in Japan” published by the Forest Agency Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), Japanese wood production and consumption is still showing signs of recovery since hitting absolute bottom in 2009.

In 2009 the total wood supply demand, that is the sum of all roundwood use volumes including fuel and imported products volume (sawnwood, plywood, and pulp and chips) expressed as m3 roundwood equivalent (RWeq), reached 64.799 million m3 RWeq. This was over 400 000 m3 RWeq less than in 1955 when MAFF records began.

In 2013 the total wood supply demand was 75.465 million m3 RWeq up 4.3 percent on 2012. Of this 1.211 million m3 RWeq was wood for fuel, the highest volume since 1980.

Domestic wood supply has been increasing and in 2013, it was up 6.5 percent on the previous year, reaching 22.716 million m3 RWeq. The volume of imported wood increased to 52.75 million m3 RWeq, up by 3.5 percent from the previous year. The self-sufficiency rate for wood has been recovering since bottoming out in 2002, reaching almost 29 percent in 2013.

FIT for forest biomass

For various reasons including topography, haulage costs and lack of local rural markets for low-grade wood, some 20 million m3 of thinning remains unused, annually. The “Forest and Forestry Basic Plan”, revised in July 2011, set a thinning wood use target (for pulp, wood chip or energy) of 6 million m3 by 2020. In recent years, boilers and stoves fuelled with woody biomass are being introduced and used in public facilities and single-family homes as well as for horticulture facilities, and production of wood pellet is increasing.

Domestic wood supply has been increasing but domestic wood fuel production has not kept up with biomass power capacity building sparking concerns over wood competition and imports.

Domestic wood supply has been increasing but domestic wood fuel production has not kept up with biomass power capacity building sparking concerns over wood competition and imports.

In July 2012 Japan revised its feed-in tariff (FIT) scheme expanding it to include biomass, wind, geothermal and small-scale hydroelectric generation facilities in a bid to balance solar photovoltaic (PV) intermittency and stimulate utilisation of unused domestic wood sources. In April 2015 it was amended to lower capacity thresehold, from 5 MW to 2 MW, in the highest FIT classification. Under the tiered FIT scheme, generators receive YEN 13-40 per kWh depending on the plant capacity and wood source used. The highest is for up to 2 MW with unused wood.

Too successful?

Although solar photovoltaic (PV) still dominates massively, the revised FIT scheme has nonetheless had a notable impact. Adding up the figures from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) puts the combined installed capacity of all approved biomass power projects under the revised FIT scheme, from July 2012 to March 2015, at just over 2 GW. Most of these 280 approved projects, which includes biogas and waste, are under 10 MW with larger projects tending to be located close to ports for biomass import purposes.

Biomass bottlenecks 

Of the 280 approved projects, 124 are using or will use some form of dedicated woody biomass and they represent 1.7 GW or 85 percent of the approved capacity.

– Supplying the huge volume of raw materials needed is a bottleneck. Due to the FIT price structure, power producers want to use forest thinning, and there is already tough competition between existing wood users, said Ken Kojima, Japan Pellets Club.

At the end of March 2015 just over one third of all the approved projects with a total combined capacity of 224 MW, half of which use wood, were operational. Figures from MAFF suggest that reaching the 6 million m3 by 2020 is progressing, reaching 1.211 million m3 in 2013 up almost 500 000 m3 since 2011. Although domestic wood pellet production has increased, capacities are relatively small. Instead imports of palm kernel shell (PKS) and wood pellets have rallied; over 450 000 tonnes PKS and 230 000 tonnes of pellets 2015, up 87 percent and 140 percent on 2014.

5151/AS

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