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New REI paper explores sustainable wood bioenergy development in Japan

Introduced in 2012 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, the Japanese feed-in tariff (FiT) scheme has driven bioenergy growth in the country in recent years. As a result of this, biomass fuel consumption has increased sharply, and ensuring sustainability has become a pressing issue. A new position paper recently released by the Renewable Energy Institute (REI) explores the path towards the development of sustainable wood bioenergy in Japan.

Quayside stockpiles of imported woodchips and palm kernels shells (PKS) at a Japanese port.

The paper “Sustainability of Wood Bioenergy: Implementation of System for Ensuring GHG Reduction“, originally released in Japanese in July 2020, explores the path towards the development of sustainable wood bioenergy in Japan.

According to the Renewable Energy Institute (REI), Japan currently derives 17 percent of its power supply from renewable sources (2018) and the government has set a renewables penetration target of 22–24 percent of power production by 2030.

While the overall proportion of variable renewables such as solar PV and wind, is increasing, it remains rather low at 6.6 percent with baseload renewables such as hydro and biomass providing the balance.

Domestic biomass already has an important role

Wood bioenergy already plays an important role in Japan, accounting for almost 90 percent of the total bioenergy supply. Amounting to some 21 million tonnes per annum this biomass is primarily sourced from domestic waste streams including black liquor, construction and demolition (C&D) waste, sawmill residues, urban and landscape cuttings, logging residues, and unused forest thinnings.

Unloading locally sourced unused roundwood at a small (1.5 MWe) biomass-fired power plant in rural Japan. The wood will be chipped on-site and used as fuel. The plant is qualified under the feed-in tariff (FiT) scheme.

While imported biomass such as palm kernel shells (PKS), woodchips, and wood pellets have increased in recent years, it still only accounts for around 10 percent of the total biomass supply.

Apart from grid balancing and integration issues along with limitations on new hydro capacity, an increase of imported biomass to fuel new dedicated biomass power plants has rapidly emerged while at the same time, biomass sustainability began to be debated in earnest in other international markets.

Address the sustainability of woody biomass

As a result, in April 2019, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) created the Biomass Sustainability Working Group (Sustainability WG), and it has discussed the establishment of sustainability standards and a certification system that could be used to verify compliance with the standards.

The scope of the Sustainability WG was however limited to agricultural biomass such as palm kernel shells (PKS), a residual product of the palm oil industry, and did not include woody biomass, so in terms of an actual implementation of sustainability initiatives, the situation remains ambiguous.

In addition, beginning in fiscal 2020, evaluation methods of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction benefits of bioenergy are scheduled for deliberation, but as Takanobu Aikawa, Senior Researcher, Renewable Energy Institute and lead author of the paper points out, these discussions need to be “comprehensive and include wood bioenergy” in order to realize the transition of the energy system for decarbonization by 2050.

The paper proposes an approach for developing systems for ensuring the sustainability of woody biomass that is premised on Japan’s FiT scheme. It points out issues in the current system in Japan and shows the direction and necessary approaches that should be taken for verifying GHG reduction benefits and setting GHG reduction targets with a long-term view.

The paper also highlights the importance of sustainable forest management (SFM), which constitutes the basis for ensuring the sustainability of wood bioenergy. In line with the diversification of the production regions, new challenges are emerging in ensuring sustainability, and FiT as well as its relevant systems need to be re-examined.

Takanobu Aikawa, Senior Researcher, Renewable Energy Institute (REI), and author of a position paper that explores the path towards the development of sustainable wood bioenergy in Japan, seen here discussing biomass power at a site visit.

About Renewable Energy Institute

Based in Tokyo, Renewable Energy Institute is a Japanese non-profit think tank that aims to build a sustainable, rich society based on renewable energy.

It was established in August 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, by Son Masayoshi, Chairman, and CEO of SoftBank Corp., with his own resources.

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