Wind Power to the Rescue

By Tim Hornyak

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — In Japanese history, kamikaze was the “divine wind” that protected Japan from Mongol invasions and inspired suicide attacks in the Pacific War. Now, as the country struggles to balance its energy needs with sustainability, it’s again hoping wind power will come to the rescue.

Resource-poor Japan has to import most of its energy, but offshore wind is poised to become a significant component in a new energy mix. In October 2020, the Japanese government said it would reduce the country’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, and now it’s moving to set up coastal wind turbines to help meet that goal. Zero emissions wind power is seen as one component of the new net zero strategy.

According to a government-industry energy panel that met in December, Japan will increase offshore wind power generation capacity from 20,000 kilowatts currently to 10 gigawatts (GW, or 10 million kilowatts) in 2030 and 30 to 45 GW by 2040, the equivalent of 45 nuclear reactors’ combined capacity. The panel’s decision follows a 2019 law that authorizes offshore turbines to operate for thirty years, much longer than the existing five years allowed by local governments, and designates eleven sites for offshore wind farms including areas in Akita, Chiba, and Nagasaki prefectures.

The power targets would make Japan the world’s third-largest offshore wind electricity generator. They would also be part of a broad effort to drastically ramp up the scale and capabilities of the domestic offshore industry including developing next-generation technology for Japan and the Asian market. In a 2019 report, the International Energy Agency said offshore wind could fulfill Japan’s power needs by over ninefold by 2014 if floating wind turbine technology is further developed.

“Considering the high population density and limited land availability of the country, it simply makes sense to take advantage of the power potential of offshore wind on Japan’s 29,751 kilometer coastline to drive the country’s energy transition,” Jin Kato, president of the Japan Wind Power Association (JWPA), said earlier this year in announcing a Japan task force with the Global Wind Energy Council.

Japan’s renewed push comes despite a costly failure. The government recently decided to scrap three loss-making wind turbines off Fukushima Prefecture, part of a set of three that were installed from 2012 at a cost of ¥60 billion (US$580 million) in a bid to revitalize the area devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The turbines had operating rates of only 4% to 36%, below the 30% to 35% needed for commercial viability, according to Kyodo News. Meanwhile, industry growth is also hobbled by red tape: In February, the Global Wind Energy Council noted that “the full scale of Japan’s offshore wind potential has yet to be unlocked due to regulatory and industrial bottlenecks.”

“Taiwan decided to work on offshore wind after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and quickly surpassed Japan,” Yoshinori Ueda, a JWPA board member, told Japan Times. “Japan is slow. No other country spends as long as five years on environmental assessments. We are requesting that the government take a central role for spearheading offshore wind like in Europe, so that the private companies would only need to build turbines.”

In 2016, Marubeni, one of the players in the Fukushima installation, set up Akita Noshiro Offshore Wind, a company focused on developing 139 megawatts worth of wind power in the Sea of Japan off the northern prefecture. With an investment of some ¥100 billion (US$922 million), it is Marubeni’s largest wind project to date in Japan. It is slated to begin commercial operations in 2022 and could supply power to about 130,000 households.

Japan is trying to play catchup in the field after decades of dabbling in sustainable energy. While Japan played host to the Kyoto Protocol climate change treaty negotiations in 1997, the country has been slow to embrace significant change in recent decades. The 2011 quake resulted in tsunamis and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The country’s 54 pre-2011 nuclear power plants were put offline for relicensing, and nine are currently back in operation after passing more stringent safety regulations. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019, Japan’s energy generation mix consisted of 77% fossil fuels such as liquefied natural gas and coal, 17% renewables, and 6% nuclear power.

“Offshore wind power has exceptionally high domestic potential compared to Japan’s electricity demand, making it an important energy source for decarbonization in Japan,” wind power researcher Shota Ichimura writes in a column for Renewable Energy Institute, a nonprofit thinktank established by SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son in 2011. “In addition, given the large scale of projects and the diverse range of related industries involved, it will be necessary to attract both domestic and foreign investment to grow the industry into a new leading industry in Japan.” 

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