Japan turns on to wind power

By Simon Scott

Search for alternatives to nuclear plants leads to turbines.

Less than 1 per cent of Japan's electricity comes from the wind. Photo / Bloomberg
Less than 1 per cent of Japan's electricity comes from the wind. Photo / Bloomberg

Traditionally, the Japanese have feared, respected and worshipped the wind as a vital, elemental force.

Fujin, the god of the wind, is one of the oldest in the Shinto pantheon and is classically depicted as a terrifying green demon carrying a large bag on his shoulders.

According to ancient Japanese mythology, Fujin helped create the cosmos by opening his bag, releasing the winds, clearing the mists of morning, and filling the space between heaven and Earth, thus allowing the sun, for the first time, to shine.

Yet in the rush to modernise, the Japanese seem to have forgotten about this once revered natural force and wind power, up until very recently, had been largely left out of country's energy policy.

In 2010, according to the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy, wind power made up only 0.4 per cent of power generated in Japan, 4.3 billion kWh out of a total 1090.8 billion kWh produced that year.

This puts Japan in 13th place in the global rankings for wind power, despite being the third largest economy in the world. In Denmark wind accounts for more than 20 per cent of power generated, putting that country at the top.

Yet, the introduction of the feed-in tariff (FIT) scheme for renewables in July this year promised to turn Japan's sluggish wind sector into a vibrant boom market.

The governments of more than 50 countries use feed-in tariffs to push clean energy by forcing electrical utilities to buy at above market rates.

Japan's scheme is a legacy of former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and pushing the bill through Parliament was one of his final acts before resigning in August last year.

The scheme also covers solar, biomass, minihydro and geothermal.

When the FIT rates were finally rolled out in July, wind was priced at a very generous 23.1 yen (33 cents) per kWh for a 20-year period for companies producing more than 20 kW. For those producing below 20 kW the rate is 57.75 per kWh, also for two decades.

This makes Japan's wind tariff the best in the world and 43 per cent higher than Italy, which has the second-highest rate globally.

Already signs indicate the market will seriously grow.

Last month, Japan's massive telecommunications conglomerate Softbank announced plans to build a gigantic wind farm on the northern coast of Hokkaido that would generate as much as 1GW of power. If all goes well, this 500-turbine farm would be the largest in Japan and Softbank would overtake Eurus Energy as the country's largest producer of wind power.

Softbank spokesman Kenichi Yuasa says it hopes the project will help promote the spread of a "renewable energy movement" in Japan.

"We think wind power will grow to become one of the fundamental sources of energy in the future because it is stable and efficient," he says.

Softbank is not the only company wanting to shake up Japan's renewables sector; recently a consortium of blue-chip Japanese companies, including Toshiba and Hitachi, pledged to invest 120 billion yen over the next decade in the development of offshore wind farms, according to Japanese media reports.

Yet, while the new FIT scheme appears to be having the desired result of stimulating the wind power sector, the government has, somewhat ironically, also decided to tighten regulations.

On October 1, an amendment to Japan's environment law requires all wind farms over 10 MW to be subjected to the same level of environmental impact assessment (EIA) as nuclear power plants.

Managing director Luke Enginton from Vestas Japan, a subsidiary of the giant Danish turbine manufacturer, says he is concerned the new regulations will burden developers with excessive start-up costs.

"Any wind farm should go through an appropriate level of environmental assessment.

"You should take into account the flora and fauna; the human habitats and the nature of the land.

"But whether the quality of the assessment is improved by spending four years on it, rather than one year, is highly questionable," he says.

Japan's geography also poses problems.

There is very little flat land and about 73 per cent of the country is categorised as mountainous.

"The more mountainous a site gets, the more complex it gets [and] the more impact the terrain has on the wind," Eginton says.

Mountain winds are more turbulent and less smooth, which results in significantly more wear and tear on the turbine.

"Any machine that is stopped and started, pushed and pulled, as opposed to a machine that is just kept running at a nice speed all its life - well, you will have far more issues to deal with in that machine."

In addition, transporting components up winding mountain roads with tunnels can prove a logistical nightmare - turbine blades can be as large 55m long.

"Japan poses a unique set of challenges.

"If you had a huge amount of other fuel sources located within Japan, wind would be much less attractive.

"The simple fact is, when it comes to traditional fuel resources, there are none. They have to use what they have," Eginton says.

- NZ Herald

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