$71 billion in Japanese coal assets at risk from cheaper renewables

Japanese utilities turn away from coal plans amid a green energy boom. (Reuters/File)
Updated 06 October 2019

$71 billion in Japanese coal assets at risk from cheaper renewables

  • Offshore wind and large-scale solar PV could be cheaper than the long-run marginal cost of existing coal plants by 2025 and 2027 for onshore wind, the report says

LONDON: As much as $71 billion in Japanese coal assets could be at risk as the economic viability of plants is undermined by cheaper renewable energy, research by the University of Tokyo, Carbon Tracker and the Carbon Disclosure Project showed on Sunday.

The report, called Land of the Rising Sun and Offshore Wind, used project financial models to analyze the economics of new and existing coal plants in Japan.

It found that Japan’s planned and existing coal capacity could be jeopardized by low utilization rates and cheaper renewable energy, namely onshore and offshore wind and large-scale solar photovoltaics (PV). Offshore wind, solar PV and onshore wind could be cheaper than new coal plants by 2022, 2023 and 2025 respectively.

Added to that, offshore wind and large-scale solar PV could be cheaper than the long-run marginal cost of existing coal plants by 2025 and 2027 for onshore wind, the report said.

To meet a globally agreed goal of limiting temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius this century, planned and operational coal capacity would need to be shut down and Japanese consumers could face $71 billion in higher power prices as the cost of stranded coal assets is passed on.

Of this amount, $29 billion could be avoided if the Japanese government reconsidered the development of planned and under construction capacity straight away, according to the report.

Coal generation

Coal-fired power generation is a major contributor to carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to global warming, which is causing heat waves, rising sea levels, droughts and other extreme weather events.

The Japanese government has said renewables should be the main source of power and the country should aim to be carbon-neutral as soon as possible after 2050, to meet the Paris global climate agreement.

However, the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011 and shutdown of Japan’s reactors increased its fossil fuel import dependence to nearly 95 percent in 2016, from 80 percent in 2010, and resulted in carbon emissions from power generation rising by a quarter, according to the International Energy Agency.

According to a Reuters survey, Japan plans to build nearly 12.6 gigawatts (GW) of new coal capacity in the next decade.

Japan’s coal generation capacity totalled around 43 GW at the end of March and is expected to reach 52 GW in 2023, according the country’s grid monitor.

Globally, previous research by Carbon Tracker has calculated that 42 percent of coal plants in operation were likely unprofitable last year and at least 72 percent could be unprofitable by 2040.


US workers face an unequal future when virus recedes

Updated 01 June 2020

US workers face an unequal future when virus recedes

  • Unemployment is now at a level not seen in since the Great Depression nearly a century ago

WASHINGTON: As the coronavirus worked its way across the US, it cleaved the country’s workforce in two: Those who have the ability to work from home, and those who do not.

From baristas to hotel workers to tourism operators, people whose job requires them to show up in-person were among the hardest hit in the waves of layoffs, and also those on the low end of the US pay scale.

Unemployment is now at a level not seen in since the Great Depression nearly a century ago, and moving higher, while the coronavirus is expected to threaten the country for months to come, factors analysts fear will only serve to deepen inequality for workers in the world’s largest economy.

“People who are well-off and highly skilled and work from home are going to demand that their employers make accommodations for them,” said Jesse Rothstein, a former chief economist at the Labor Department who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. But “lower skilled workers ... are taking on more risk without more pay.”

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has described the pandemic as “a great increaser of inequality,” but experts say that is not inevitable, particularly if Congress passes new stimulus measures to support battered businesses and consumers.

“Every single cleavage we had before is widening,” said Claudia Sahm, a former principal economist with the Federal Reserve who is now with the Washington Center for Economic Growth.

“We have an opportunity to do something better than what we were doing before, but it will not just happen. It has to be a policy effort.”

When the coronavirus arrived, the US economy had a tight labor market, with an unemployment rate near a historic low of 3.5 percent in February, while long-stagnant wages were just starting to rise. Yet the job market was not as healthy as it appeared.

The US Private Sector Job Quality Index (JQI) — which uses government employment statistics to gauge the balance between non-supervisory jobs with decent pay and those without — has been charting downwards for years.

In February, the JQI was back near its all-time low reached in March 2012 as many of the jobs being created paid below the mean weekly wage, according to the index compiled by a consortium of academics and researchers.

And a study late last year from the Brookings Institution found 44 percent of US workers qualify as “low wage,” with median annual earnings of just $18,000 a year.

When the pandemic hit and sent the unemployment rate to 14.7 in April and the economy into an almost-certain recession, low-paid workers in industries like leisure, hospitality and food services were laid off in such large numbers their absence skewed average wages upwards.

While government data show most consider their layoffs to be temporary, Michael Weber, an associate professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, warned that if businesses close or scale back staffing, job seekers will be forced to compete against each other, driving wages lower, as is typical in recession job markets.

Grocery store chain Kroger, e-commerce giant Amazon and several fast food companies have announced massive hirings since the pandemic hit, but offer no safe haven.

“Those are the very jobs that are under criticism over the last few years given that they pay unreasonably low wages,” Weber said. And those type of jobs “come hand-in-hand with a more precarious income situation.”

Robert Hockett, a law professor at Cornell University who is a principal researcher on the JQI, said job seekers could demand risk premiums at workplaces where they face exposure to the coronavirus, or take equity stakes in struggling companies to help keep them afloat.

The Fed reported this week that Boston area employers were giving workers temporary pay increases of up to 30 percent, in part to compensate for the increased risk and hold onto their employees.

But unemployed workers could end up forced to accept whatever jobs they can find, particularly if Congress fails to extend the small business loans and unemployment benefits temporarily expanded in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act approved in March.

“We’re kind of on a tightrope or a knife’s edge at this moment,” Hockett said in an interview.

President Donald Trump’s administration has been lukewarm toward further spending on aid for workers, predicting the coronavirus will be defeated and a strong economic rebound starting in July, even as many economists remain skeptical of a rapid, V-shaped recovery.

“It’s all going to ride on how desperate workers are,” Hockett said, “And that’s going to ride on public policy positions.”