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Producing Power, Producing Space: The Geopolitical Economy of Electric Power Policy in Japan


The Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 provoked a profound reassessment by the Japanese public, political and business leaders, and civic organizations of their nation’s reliance on nuclear power. In response to the disaster, the Japanese government passed sweeping administrative reforms to the prevailing institutions that governed the electric power sector over much of the postwar period. These reforms included a Feed-in Tariff (FIT) for renewable energy projects and the deregulation of the electric power sector, which opened both power generation and retail electricity sales to outside entrants. This dissertation examines how these changes to the regulatory regime governing Japan’s electric power system are transforming socio-ecological relations in Japan. Bringing together literatures in Marxist state theory, science and technology studies, and geopolitical economy, it addresses the following questions: what role have the legal regimes of electric power policy played in shaping and stabilizing uneven power relations between the Japanese public and monopoly utilities, as well as between power producing and power consuming regions, that characterize the geopolitical economy of the electric power system in Japan? How are these power relations changing as a result of regulatory reforms of Japan’s electric power sector since 2011? And how do spatial, material, and political economic factors either permit or constrain these transformations? To answer these questions, it takes a hybrid approach, tracing both the historical geography of this system over the twentieth century and examining more narrowly the impact of recent regulatory reforms—particularly the widespread and rapid buildout of renewable energy since 2011—on the institutional, ecological, and material dynamics of this system. It begins by presenting a “geohistorical institutionalist” account of the development of state policy regarding the electric power system over the long twentieth century, which reorganized geopolitical economic relations across the territory of Japan and established relations of dependence between power producing and power consuming regions. It then traces the impact of post-2011 electricity sector reforms, which were responsible for a rapid buildout of solar photovoltaics across the country and made Japan one of the leaders of the global energy transition. While this rapid growth of renewables has increased competition and undermined the profitability of Japan’s former regional monopolies, this dissertation further details how the utilities attempt to protect their fixed capital investments in centralized generation stations by appealing to the material limitations of Japan’s power grid. As scholars and energy transition advocates argue for interventionist state action to produce the conditions for a transition to renewable energy, this dissertation reveals the political economic and geomaterial constraints that limit the potential of state action to bring about energy transitions.

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