Media Mix, April 23, 2017

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the documentary, Nihon to Saisei, on the feasability of renewable energy in Japan. As I said in the column, the movie is a polemic, strongly in favor of renewables, that does not make a big deal out of the dangers associated with nuclear power. Instead, the filmmakers make their case that renewables are more practical and economical than either nuclear or thermal power using fossil fuels. The main obstacle is the will to make renewables work on a large scale, something the major regional utilities and their allies in the government and business are against. The examples the movie presents for success with renewables overseas all involve local governments, because renewables work best on the local level. The major power companies in Japan are invested in centralized power sources, since that gives them ultimate control over production and transmission. Once that control is dispersed, they no longer have a reason to exist, which is why, according to the film, they are so stingy about allowing new power companies use of their power lines.

But another way that the utilities, and major companies in general, retain their hold on the economic narrative is by pushing new technologies that are presented as being vanguard. By rights, renewables should be presented as cutting edge, but nuclear fission has been the “future power source” for so long it’s become a cliche, even as most countries in the world have abandoned it as such. The government and the media, according to the film, maintain a false belief that renewables are never going to be able to satisfy all of Japan’s needs, a story that denies renewables’ status as a vanguard technology. The problem for the utilities is that it isn’t a technology that will make them a lot of money. An apt analogy would be with the maglev train now being built between Tokyo and Nagoya. When it is finished it will shorten the time it takes to travel between the two cities, but considering the enormous cost, is it really worth it? Those who support the maglev point to its status as a future-oriented technology, and while it is impressive in that regard, it isn’t really practical for the use it’s being built for. JR Tokai can never hope to recoup the money it (and the government) will spend on it because not enough people will patronize it for various reasons (the price of tickets compared to conventional bullet trains; the lack of novelty effect, since 80 percent is underground). In another context–say, between Dallas and Houston, which is flat and mostly uninhabited–the maglev could work very well. But in Japan it is being built simply because it is cutting edge, not because it is needed. A similar sort of thinking is behind the government’s rationalization for keeping nuclear power, and the media goes along with it.

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