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Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2011

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Blown away: Windmills in Minamiawaji, on the southern edge of Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture, overlook the Inland Sea. ERIC JOHNSTON

POWERING THE FUTURE

Wind power quest faces stability, regulatory hurdles

Like steady breeze and ideal sites, utilities' commitment also eludes


Staff writer
Fourth in a series

MINAMIAWAJI, Hyogo Pref. — Southern Awaji Island is technically in Hyogo Prefecture. But its location — within sight of Shikoku just across the Inland Sea — bright sunshine, and strong gusting winds give it the feel of a subtropical island.

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The breezes are especially important, because the city of Minamiawaji, the main population center, is home to a wind farm that sits on a hilly area between 118 and 225 meters above sea level. Fifteen turbines of 2,500 kw each provide 37,500 kw. They generate enough power for 12,000 households — two-thirds of Minamiawaji's total.

"Each turbine is 129 meters high, with a diameter of 88 meters, the largest in Japan," said Yoshiaki Shibata of CEF Minamiawaji Wind Farm Corp., the Nemuro-based company in charge of the project.

Minamiawaji Wind Farm, however, is one of only a handful of wind power projects in the Kansai region, where topographical conditions mean winds, especially off Osaka and Kobe, are less than ideal.

Japan lags behind many other countries in the use of wind power for a variety of reasons, including a lack of good locations with strong winds, strict environmental restrictions and the tendency of utilities to advocate fossil fuels and nuclear power.

But with increased attention by the central government amid the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, many towns across the country have started moving to invest in local projects to build wind turbines.

"To take the lead in offshore wind power, we want domestic research and development, and for manufacturers to boost their capabilities," Masanori Sato, an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, told reporters.

In mid-September, METI announced plans to spend up to ¥20 billion installing six offshore floating wind turbines in Fukushima Prefecture over the next five years. In addition, METI hopes to add an additional 1 million kw from wind power in the Tohoku region by 2020.

This newfound enthusiasm for wind power by the central government is due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is its relatively low cost when compared with other renewable energy sources. The fact that many Japanese firms like Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are already aggressive players in the international market is another contributing factor.

Currently, wind power costs about ¥11 per kwh on average, and 1,807 windmills were generating about 2.44 million kw as of March, according the Japan Wind Power Association.

But this figure is quite low when compared with China and the United States, both of which generate more than 40 million kw.

Shibata and other wind power experts point to a number of problems that have hindered Japan from using more wind power.

Many of the best locations are located within national parks, which have tight rules governing development. But even areas near national parks or sanctuaries can be problematic.

Studies by the Environment Ministry and METI, as well as the nongovernmental Japan Wind Power Association, show areas near Tokyo and Nagoya are far less appropriate for wind farms than Hokkaido, Kagoshima Prefecture, and especially Tohoku.

"Some areas outside of the Kushiro Wetlands offer good potential. But migratory birds that nest in the wetlands may pass over the area, and that means addressing environmental concerns that, even if a wind turbine is not located within the designated wetlands area, it might still affect migratory wildlife that lives there," Shibata said.

While wind turbine operators face environmental regulations, they have not been legally obliged to carry out formal environmental assessments prior to building. However, due to long-standing complaints from neighborhoods near wind farms about the noise, as well as concerns about bird strikes, the Environment Ministry will by the end of this year require wind stations that generate more than 10,000 kw to conduct such assessments.

Another obstacle has been that many potential sites are coastal, far away from towns or housing settlements — which means higher distribution costs. Locating wind farms along coasts reduces transmission efficiency and adds to the overall cost of delivering their electricity where needed.

Tohoku, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and, according to Shibata, the Noto Peninsula area down to Fukui Prefecture, are all good areas to build wind turbines. But electricity demand is greatest in the large population centers of eastern, central and western Honshu. Thus, the most favored sites are in remote areas where current electricity grid capacity is still comparatively small and where connecting to faraway customers on current grids poses supply challenges and high costs.

Proponents of expanded renewable energy have long put much of the blame on METI for pushing fossil fuels and nuclear power at the expense of renewables. But in the case of wind, it appears the loudest opposition may come from the utilities, which have long had doubts about the stability and high costs of wind power.

In a 2009 report, the Belgium-based Global Wind Energy Council, which represents more than 1,500 companies, institutions and organizations in more than 70 countries, put much of the blame for the problem on Japan's utilities.

"Limited grid access and the monopolistic hold over the power grids by regional electricity companies, who use variability issues as an excuse for not investing in more capacity, have also hampered the development of wind generation," the report says.

Takeshi Ishihara, an engineering professor at Tokyo University and a member of the Japan Wind Energy Association, a group of academic experts involved in wind power, said METI, at least, has pushed for further offshore wind power development for at least five years.

"METI has been passionate about the research and development of offshore wind farms since 2006. With the passage of the new renewable energy law last month, and their plans for more wind power off Fukushima and Tohoku by 2020, they've clearly made development of new energy industries a major part of their overall industrial policy," Ishihara said.

But he identified two problems that need to be overcome before wind power in Japan becomes a dominant energy source.

"First, the central government needs to set new wind power targets for 2020. At present, the goal is to introduce 28 million kw of solar power, but only 5 million kw of wind power by 2020. At the very least, the target for wind power should be at the same level as that for solar," he said.

"The second problem has to do with restructuring the electricity generation system," he said. "This includes prioritizing wind power generation and wind power connection system control and systemizing control and forecasts of wind power output." In other words, reducing the risk of lower efficiency due to variable wind conditions.

Under the August law, will wind farms thrive? Ishihara believes so, but the question of what the feed-in tariff for wind power will be, and over what period it will be, has yet to be decided, while political opposition from the utilities and the public perception of wind power as being unstable will also have to be overcome.

In the meantime, wind proponents like Ishihara, and Tetsuo Saito of the Japan Wind Power Association, as well as the central government, are emphasizing the current importance and future potential of wind power technology to the economy.

"Wind power is already a ¥6 trillion-a-year business worldwide, and has been growing by 30 percent or more annually since 2005," Saito wrote in a June report on how Japan could generate 50 million kw of wind power by 2050, or 10 percent of its total energy demand.

"For major Japanese firms it's a ¥170 billion business annually, and if you include smaller parts suppliers, the total rises to ¥500 billion.

"In addition, there are many areas of wind turbine parts manufacturing that overlap with the technology and skills of auto parts manufacturers," he added. "So investment in wind power can take advantage of Japan's traditional abilities to make things, and encourage economic and industrial growth, research and development, and new jobs."

Additional reporting by Yuki Asano



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