Green energy fund formed with high hopes

After decades of ignoring alternative energy sources, traditional energy distributors are now focusing on solar, wind, hydroelectric and organic waste as the future of power generation. To bankroll the use of environmentally friendly energy sources such as wind and solar energy, a new fund, the green power fund, was established in October with the backing of electric companies across the country. Similar initiatives, which typically seek donations from consumers and businesses to defray the high cost of generating “green power,” have already taken root in some industrialized countries. In Japan, despite being championed by industry, the cause has aroused mixed reactions among environmental groups that have eagerly awaited the advent of a home-grown answer to concepts from abroad. “Why don’t we all chip in and develop natural energy?” asks actress Yuki Kishi in a current Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) TV commercial in the Kanto region. Regional power companies elsewhere are also promoting the fund via newspaper advertisements, fliers, and the Internet. Ken Tsuzuku, head of the People’s Forum for Renewable Energy, a citizens’ group that discusses the introduction of a clean-energy program with industrialists, is of two minds about the fund. “Although we’ve been looking forward to a fund like this in principle, we cannot give this one our unqualified approval,” he says. A written request submitted by his organization to the Federation of Electric Power Companies in early October describes the fund as “a milestone,” but it also expresses “apprehensions” about its effectiveness. Natural power generation using the sun and wind, organic waste, and small-scale hydroelectric power systems emits smaller amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides-the greenhouse gases blamed for air pollution and global warming-than does thermal power, which relies on oil and other fossil fuels. It also does less harm to the physical environment, and these resources are virtually inexhaustible. Some European nations-including Germany, which has pledged to phase out nuclear power by 2020-are pushing green energy, notably wind power, as an alternative. In Japan, electric companies keen to reduce reliance on fossil fuels have concentrated their efforts on thermal, nuclear and hydroelectric power, citing their advantages in cost and efficiency. As for other green energy, power companies have been paying newcomers to the energy market more per unit for the wind power and other green energy they buy than for thermal power. But, as their green power investment grows, the industry has decided to ask individual and business users to shoulder part of the burden by inviting them to make monthly donations of 500 yen a share. The plan is to pool the money at regional industrial progress centers across the nation, letting the centers determine the size of subsidies to the operators of solar and wind power plants. With many new enterprises turning to wind power, industry sources say the bulk of the fund will support wind power generation. Tsuzuku praises the program for raising public awareness about the environment, but he also questions how seriously the industry is committed to a cleaner world. A nonpartisan bill to promote natural power generation is now at the drafting stage in the Diet. The point of the bill is centered on whther power companies are required to purchase solar- and wind-generated electricity. The Federation of Electric Power Companies opposes such a policy, saying that legal compulsion “would undermine power companies’ incentive to cut their costs.” Instead, the federation prefers to push voluntary measures such as the newly established fund. It remains unclear how much money the fund-which is a virtual attempt to forestall the bill-will attract, and how much green power it plans to purchase with any donations. “Without a clear goal, citizen enthusiasm, as reflected in the amount of contributions, is bound to shrivel. It would be an empty gesture if all this achieves is cheap energy for the power companies,” says Tsuzuku. TEPCO hopes that by March 2001, it will have received contributions from one from every thousand households it supplies. However, environmentalists predict it will be difficult to meet this target through TV commercials and fliers alone. According to Kimihito Ise from the Japan Electric Power Information Center, a German university that looked at similar programs in various parts of the globe early last year found that one in 20 households supplied by a particular Dutch power company were subscribing to a green power fund. The company solicited this degree of support after taking customers on inspection tours of wind power plants and involving them in the cause, Ise says.

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