Supportive policy is taking shape but it is unclear how soon the industry will be able to benefit, writes Martin Foster.
After years of inertia, the Japanese wind sector appears to be picking up speed. Installed capacity grew 16% between April 2009 and March 2010, the last period for which official government figures are available, to surpass the 2GW mark (see graphic). But the country has missed its 2010 target of 3GW by a broad margin. The reasons: power companies' reluctance to change with the times, political in-fighting and public scepticism. That was the message heard by 300 participants at the Japan Wind Energy Association's annual symposium in Tokyo.
Experts say Japan has ample wind resources that merely need a little ingenuity to tap. Sitting at latitudes of between 45 and 32 degrees north of the equator, the east-Asian nation is blessed with strong westerly and seasonal winds. Sea breezes have less distance to travel to inland areas than in many other countries known for wind power development, given that no point along Japan's long, narrow territory is more than 150 kilometres from the shoreline.
Yet, for the Japanese energy establishment, wind power continues to compare unfavourably with nuclear energy. Often-cited figures from the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, a part of the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti), estimate generation costs of JPY 4.8-6.2/kWh ($0.058-0.075/kWh) for nuclear and JPY 9-14/kWh for wind power.
At least one respected veteran of Japan's renewable energy industry has countered that nuclear costs are grossly understated and do not include transmission, administrative expenses or the inflated prices of domestic reactors.
Japan has been eager to embrace solar power, despite the generation costs for solar energy, at JPY 49/kWh, being far higher than those for wind power, according to figures from the agency. Yet Japan is unique in having a higher installed capacity of solar than wind energy - the result of extensive lobbying by solar-power panel makers, according to Yukinobu Uchida, managing director at renewables consultancy GL Garrad Hassan's Tokyo office.
Japan has thrived despite repeated oil shocks due to a proven ability to achieve high energy efficiency. This raises the question: why has the third largest economy on the planet not mustered forces to exploit one of the few natural resources it has in abundance - wind?
At the November 24-25 symposium, participants blamed the power utilities for lack of progress. "It is necessary to break down the monopolies held by the electric power companies," said Uchida. "Without this, nothing will happen."
Participants such as Uchida were unhappy with the existing framework of Japan's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires power producers to source a set portion of their electricity from renewables, including wind. In place since 2003, the RPS requires power utilities to buy only 1.35% of electricity from renewable sources. It also allows them to carry over surplus renewables output from the previous year's requirement, giving little incentive to expand renewable energy generation.
Many local analysts reject the idea that company-by-company requirements are a driver for wind power. "I see this law not opening up possibilities for wind power, but putting a lid on renewable electricity usage," Uchida said. "Power companies are in effect saying: 'We will do it, but only so far.'"
Penalties for failing to reach mandated goals are negligible when viewed in the context of power utilities' total earnings, Uchida added. The basic penalty is JPY 3 million ($35,845) for each infraction. By comparison, Tokyo Electric Power Company forecasts sales of over JPY 5.3 trillion ($64 billion) and profits of JPY 88.5 billion ($1.7 billion) in the year ending March 31, 2011.
Moreover, penalties for non-fulfillment of obligations have yet to be imposed - and are unlikely to be - Uchida said, noting that obligations are reviewed on an annual basis by Meti and individual electrical power companies behind closed doors.
Participants also faulted Japan's ten power utilities for failing to lower barriers to trading wind power across their grids. The companies continue to insist that variability in wind speeds make wind unsuitable as a power source. They have attempted to have wind power suppliers store output in batteries - a requirement that adds to costs and undermines efforts to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, say critics (Windpower Monthly, June 2007). At the symposium, clearly exemplifying the lack of energy-industry support for wind power was the fact that none of the 11 keynote speeches was delivered by a power company.
This is not to say renewables proponents have no cause for optimism. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) early last year voiced support for feed-in tariffs (FITs) for all renewable energy and said the government should shoulder the cost of building a more efficient electricity grid able to transmit more renewable power (Windpower Monthly, June 2010). The main catalyst in the shift to FITs - government-mandated prices for renewable electricity - was the victory of the DPJ at lower-house elections in August 2009 and the announcement of the Hatoyama Initiative, an ambitious plan by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to reduce Japan's global warming emissions by 25% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels.
Meti announced FITs in July, setting purchase prices of JPY 48/kWh ($0.58/kWh) for solar power, which will be gradually decreased, and JPY 15-20/kWh ($0.18-0.24/kWh) for other types of clean electricity. The contract periods are to be ten years for solar power and 15-20 years for others. Meti estimates FITs will promote green-energy technology, resulting in a 2% reduction of national CO2 emissions, or approximately 24-29 million tonnes, in the decade following introduction.
But apart from opposition from the utilities, consumers also grumble over the higher electricity bills resulting from FITs. According to climate-change think tank Climatico, Meti minister Masayuki Naoshima failed to inspire confidence in either generators or consumers when he was quoted as saying mid-last year: "Total national benefits from FITs will be greater than total national burdens." Still, the ministry promises to soldier on, seeking to launch the FITs in April 2012.
But, in typical Japanese fashion, progress has been slowed by vested interests disagreeing on overlapping initiatives. Confusion has arisen as the introduction of FITs will require tampering with an existing system of subsidies covering 25% of wind-project capital investment by private companies and 50% of investment by public-sector entities.
Government hearings designed to cut out waste in government expenditure have found that numerous local authorities erect wind turbines to claim subsidies regardless of energy yield or operation. As a result, government watchdogs halved handouts in 2010, and there is a strong likelihood they may be withdrawn from 2011.
This has the wind sector on edge. "We have finally reached the stage where we are moving in the direction of FITs," said Uchida. "But, even at the earliest, FITs' adoption will not happen until April 2012, and I believe even that is optimistic. It may be 2013 before we see FITs introduced." He added: "In the meantime, there will be no capital subsidies, which means that the Japanese market will be effectively frozen."
Meti is rarely subjected to outright criticism at the wind energy annual event. But Hitoshi Kono, a professor and climate specialist at the University of Hyogo's School of Human Sciences and Environment, dispensed with such formalities. "The Meti stance towards wind power generation was negative over the past year," he said. "My impression this year is that they have retreated a little even from last year's stance." Kono said Japan forecasts roughly proportionate growth in wind and solar power generation. That outlook, he said, fails to take into account that wind power is significantly cheaper to generate. Kono suggested the government should increase its forecast for wind. "Some people explain this state of affairs by saying the authorities are putting efforts into exports of solar power (technology). But in the face of the generation cost comparisons, that is not a convincing enough argument," Kono said.
War of attrition
Japanese opponents of wind power have more tools in the shed than mere claims that variability makes wind uneconomical. In their battle against wind, they continue with equal vigour to cite wind turbine bird strikes and purported health effects from low-frequency sound waves emanating from turbines.
At least one paper presented at the symposium touched upon bird strikes. In his presentation, Kenji Horiuchi, an official at Yokohama-based wind consultancy Jist, cited US statistics and noted that the incidence of bird strikes was low, ranging between 0.6 and 7.7 annual cases per turbine for common birds, and 0.0-0.1 for birds of prey.
Horiuchi said birds, and in particular birds of prey, have a well-developed ability to see objects at a distance. Due to a blurring phenomenon known as motion smear, the rotating blades of a wind turbine may appear to birds as transparent objects, he said, and not register as obstacles, resulting in collisions. Horiuchi said it was also possible that the flight patterns of birds seeking prey on the ground may cause delayed reactions to the turbine blades.
That birds die when they collide with wind turbines is "an argument even a child can understand", said Kono of Hyogo University. But he viewed this problem as insignificant when compared with the destruction of nature caused by emissions from fossil-fuel power stations and cars.
Alleged health problems from turbine noise is raised so frequently in Japan that the media have given it a medical classification of sorts: fusha-byo, which translates as wind-turbine disease (Windpower Monthly, March 2009). Japan's Ministry of the Environment is in its third year of research into the effects of low-frequency sound waves, according to Hiroshi Nagai, an associate professor at the Nihon University College of Industrial Technology. At present, no direct causal relationship has been established by any research, he said.
Still, the debate rages on. The human ear can detect sound waves between 20Hz and 20,000Hz. Low-frequency sound waves tend to be defined as those below 100Hz. In 2009, 11 residents living near a wind farm in Higashiizu-cho, in Shizuoka prefecture, reportedly filed petitions to determine whether there was any relation between low-frequency sound waves from the wind turbines and ailments they experienced, including breathing difficulty and nosebleeds.
Though wind turbines have been blamed, low-frequency sound waves are also emitted by mobile-phone relay stations. But while much of the blame for low-frequency sound waves has been placed on the doorstep of wind power and mobile phones, Nagai said, in reality these allegedly harmful vibrations have existed since the age of the loom and are even produced by cement factories.
Out to sea
Much of the problem could be avoided if wind farms were built at least a kilometre from residential areas, observers say. That may be feasible in a nation such as Denmark, with 130 people per square kilometre. Japan, however, has a population density of 339 people per square kilometre on a terrain where almost 75% of land mass is mountainous.
The way for wind to get around the obstacles is to look offshore or even plant turbines in national parks, say some. Indeed, several presentations at the symposium focused on offshore turbines. Some participants, though, saw the enthusiasm for such solutions as a backhanded means of defeating wind by driving up costs. In Japan, public opposition to wind turbines in national parks is all but guaranteed, while wind power from offshore farms costs far more than that generated onshore (see page 47).
GL Garrad Hassan's Uchida, for one, said Japan was nowhere near its limit for onshore wind. "There are still numerous places we can exploit wind power on land," he said. "We should thoroughly investigate these before talking about going offshore."