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Japan, after other countries, is closing the biofuel gap

Japan is lagging behind several other countries in developing liquid biofuels that serve as alternatives for fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

An increase in demand for oil caused by expanding economic activities worldwide as well as tighter government control of natural resources, as in Russia, are likely to drive up oil prices. It is imperative that Japan develop alternative renewable energy sources to diversify energy sources and reduce reliance on oil. The development of such energy sources would also help combat global warming.

The International Energy Agency’s „World Energy Outlook 2006,” published November 6, predicts that primary global energy demand will increase by 53% between now and 2030, with more than 70% of the increased demand coming from developing countries, led by China and India. The government needs to work out a concrete timetable for reducing Japan’s dependence on oil through wider use of renewable energy. The rise in oil prices is likely to make it commercially more feasible to develop and use such energy.

In November, 2006 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka to cooperate with other government ministries such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Environment Ministry in efforts to produce 6 million kiloliters of bioethanol annually, an equivalent of 10% of Japan’s yearly gasoline consumption. Bioethanol, a gasoline substitute, is made from starch, sugar or cellulose plants. To produce bioethanol, raw materials such as corn and sugar cane are fermented, enriched through distillation and then dehydrated. Brazil and the United States are major producers of bioethanol.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement among more than 160 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that went into effect in February 2005, biofuels made from plants are not regarded as sources of greenhouse-gas emissions since the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during their use matches that absorbed by plants. In its plan for implementing the Kyoto Protocol agreement, Japan has been trying to increase the amount of biofuel use in fiscal 2010 to an equivalent of 500,000 kiloliters of gasoline. While the production of bioethanol is expanding worldwide against a background of high oil prices, Japan’s current production of bioethanol is negligible.

The nation now has six demonstration test facilities - one each in Hokkaido, Yamagata, Osaka and Okayama and two in Okinawa - producing an annual total of only about 30 kiloliters. The agriculture ministry plans to build three large facilities in Hokkaido and Okinawa under the fiscal 2007 budget to produce an annual 10,000 kiloliters of bioethanol. It hopes that increased production of bioethanol will contribute to promoting local economies through the use of sugar-cane refuse and wheat and other agricultural products whose quality is substandard. Abandoned farmlands can be used to raise the raw plant materials.

The Environment Ministry has its own plan. By utilizing the technology at a private-sector facility now under construction in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, the world’s first facility to produce bioethanol from scrap wood chips, the ministry plans to produce and supply an annual 47,000 kiloliters of „E3 fuel” - gasoline containing 3% bioethanol. This amount is sufficient to power 40,000 vehicles a year. About 100 special gas stations will be built in the Kanto and Kansai megalopolis regions. At present, gasoline legally may contain only up to 3% biofuel, because it is feared that a higher concentration, if used by existing cars, would lead to the emission of more nitrogen-oxide gas and accelerate the corrosion of vehicular parts.

The ministry also plans to assist companies that enter the biofuel-related business and automakers that manufacture cars equipped with engines able to use E10 fuel (gasoline containing 10% bioethanol), with the aim of making all new cars E10-capable by 2012. The development and wider use of alternative renewable energy sources are inevitable from the viewpoint of both energy security and environmental protection. But imports of raw plant materials may be necessary. The legal cap of 3% ethanol concentration in gasoline is stricter than in Brazil and the US Raising the cap involves both legal and technical issues. Since the costs of producing, distributing and storing bioethanol are high, a special tax measure will be necessary to make it competitive with gasoline. Taking measures to ensure the safety of bioethanol use is also important. (