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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Nature stifling wind power in Japan

Poor weather, geography point industry toward ocean


Staff writer

CHOSHI, Chiba Pref. — About a 2 1/2-hour drive east of central Tokyo, on the edge of the Kanto plain, stands one of the closest wind farms to the capital, whirring away as it generates up to 25,500 kw of clean electricity.

News photo
Breath of fresh power: Windmills along the coast of Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, can generate 25,500 kw with all 17 units in operation. HIROKO NAKATA PHOTO

Here in the fishing port of Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, warm and cold currents meet offshore in the Pacific Ocean, creating strong winds that feed about 30 of the 1,400 windmills erected nationwide.

Wind power is drawing increased attention as carbon dioxide emissions accelerate global warming. Japan, however, is far behind Europe and the United States in generating wind energy because of geographical and meteorological factors, experts said.

"To construct wind stations, you need to find places where strong winds blow. But such places are often on mountains or on the coastlines of islands and peninsulas, and the landforms are complex," said Hiroshi Imamura, a senior researcher at wind power consulting firm Wind Energy Institute of Tokyo.

Complex land features create unstable winds, making it difficult to stabilize power generation. And the several typhoons that either swipe or cross Japan each year threaten to damage the stations, hamstringing progress in Japan's wind power quest, he said.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, Japan's wind power capacity is 13th in the world at 1.5 gigawatts at the end of 2007, or a mere 1.6 percent of global capacity. Germany meanwhile had the top capacity with 22.2 gw, followed by 16.8 gw in the U.S.

In light of the difficult conditions in Japan, however, the winds at Choshi seem to be better than anywhere else, said Katsuaki Futatsugi, chief of Choshi's wind power station.

"Typhoons come around here 10 times a year. But this place is only hit directly two or three times," said Futatsugi, who is also a general manager at Choshi Wind Development Co., a subsidiary of wind farm operator Japan Wind Development Co.

"As long as typhoons don't strike, I can be happy," he said. If it comes close but passes by offshore, the wind blows at about 51 kph, which is close to the ideal speed, he added.

JWD operates 17 units in the area that have a total generating capacity of 25,500 kw.

Futatsugi needs to keep an eye on the weather forecasts whenever a typhoon is approaching. If one hits, winds can exceed 102 kph, which is too strong.

Wind turbine blades are at their most efficient when directly facing the wind. Sensors are used to adjust the pitch of each blade.

If winds exceeding 90 kph are detected, the power station automatically shuts down to lessen the strain on the tower and blades.

Unfortunately, however, powerful storms have wreaked major damage. In 2003, a strong typhoon broke five wind turbines on Okinawa's Miyako Island. Wind speeds reached more than 252 kph.

To avoid typhoons, many wind farms are built in the Tohoku region or in Hokkaido. There is an especially strong concentration of stations in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where electricity generation actually surpasses transmission capacity in the district.

To survive bad weather, turbines that can resist unstable and strong winds must be developed, said Imamura of Wind Energy Institute.

The wind turbine market is currently dominated by European and U.S. makers, whose products are mostly designed to be used on their continents, where stable winds constantly blow across mostly level landscapes, experts said.

As of 2006, Denmark-based Vestas held the top share in turbines in Japan at 23 percent, followed by 21 percent by GE Energy, a unit of General Electric, and 12 percent by Enercon GmbH of Germany, according to New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

"There are many European makers in the wind power turbine business," said Takeshi Shigeto, head of the Asia wind energy team at GE Energy in Tokyo.

The few Japanese firms in the sector have a total share of about 14 percent at most of the domestic market, he said.

Experts say the government must launch an initiative to boost wind power generation, noting its failure to set high goals, as well as resistance to deregulation of power generation in general, are other big problems.

In January, the European Union raised its goal for renewable energy, including wind and solar power, to 20 percent of total energy needs in 2020 from 8.5 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, Japan's goal is to supply 1.35 percent of its total energy needs from renewable sources in fiscal 2010.

Experts complain that the established power utilities require producers to generate an overly high quality of electricity, further hindering the expansion of wind power.

Given the difficult geographic conditions, plans to build offshore wind stations are drawing more attention as such facilities increase in Europe.

Although the continental shelf surrounding Japan is not wide, the potential is there, experts said.

"Since Japan doesn't have much space left on land, offshore farms will be promising in the next stage," Imamura said.

The government plans to start a feasibility study this year and launch offshore construction experiments in three years to study the impact such stations might have on marine life, the experts said.



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