Three of the four new sites already feature offshore wind power facilities.
On 15 July, the Headquarters for Ocean Based Policy (HOBP), part of the Cabinet Secretariat that reports directly to prime minister Shinzo Abe, announced that Kabeshima in Saga prefecture, Kabashima in Nagasaki prefecture, and Awashima in Niigata prefecture had been selected as test sites for further offshore wind development. The fourth site, Mejima in Okinawa prefecture, has no offshore wind tie-in. Experiments there are expected to focus on power driven by differences in ocean temperature.
While the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) acts as the point of contact on all matters relating to energy, other government departments, such as the Ministry of Environment, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, have taken a role in sustainable energy.
On ocean-related projects, HOBP coordinates, helping to bring different ministries to the same table. Its direct reporting line to the prime minister provides for a smoother and simpler decision-making process.
The three sites involving offshore wind energy were selected based on a prior understanding with local stakeholders, such as the powerful fishing cooperatives that have legally binding rights to the waters where many offshore wind power facilities are to be built, the existence of major energy potential, and the presence of a state-backed research body or private-sector enterprise interested in developing the areas, according to Yoichi Oda, deputy counsellor of HOBP.
Chuichi Arakawa, a professor in the engineering faculty at the University of Tokyo, was a member of a working group on ocean-based sustainable energy as part of the new project announcement. He admits that securing agreement with the fishing cooperatives was a long and protracted process, but that now the decision on test fields has been made, wind power should be on course for rapid development."This will help the Japanese people familiarise themselves with ocean-based power and create an environment where it is easier for them to accept offshore wind power," he says.
However, HOBP has budgeted no funds for research, disappointing potential developers who had expected the government to provide more funds up front.
Finance remains available only from METI and on a case-by-case basis.
The three wind-related projects are at different levels in the experimental chain, with Kabeshima in Saga prefecture said to be closest to operation.
Modec, an engineering contractor specialising in floating structures, has long planned tests in these waters, but these were derailed last October when a waterwheel from the company's unique Savonius Keel and Wind Turbine Darrieus (Skwid), sank in rough seas. It had been expected that Modec would try to retrieve the part, but sources indicated it has successfully developed a new component and the company says that it plans to start offshore field testing in the autumn.
"Onshore field testing is moving along favourably and we are obtaining various data and adjusting the software for automatic operations," says Ryuji Sekiguchi of Modec's general affairs department.
By rights, Kabashima in the Goto islands (not to be confused with Kabeshima in Saga), should be ahead of the pack. An extended project operated by the Ministry of Environment started with a 100kW downwind turbine in June 2012. That was replaced by a 2MW Hitachi turbine on a spar-type floating foundation in October 2013.
Existing sea-cable capacity, however, means that only 600kW of power is being supplied for domestic use to the islands, with the remaining 1.4MW being discarded, according to Hiroyuki Mitsui at the Goto City office. This puts the pressure on the Kyushu Electric Power Company to lay a higher-capacity cable and make the connection to the mainland.
"We want to see a seabed cable that will connect Goto to the mainland," says Mitsui. "At present we are working with a dual 66kV cable, but 2.2MW is desirable.
Although feed-in-tariffs (FITs) for fixed-bottom offshore wind installations were decided in March, those for floating wind, tidal and wave power have yet to be set. In the absence of a clear profit structure, many power companies remain reluctant to put sustainable energy on the grid.
And, given the uncertainty about the availability of certain types of sustainable energy, the power companies tend to prefer baseload-type power, as exemplified by nuclear.
In fact, despite a legal obligation to purchase all sustainable energy introduced in line with feed-in-tariffs in 2012, the power companies maintain a veto over whether they put such power on their grids. "We want central government to do something about power grid issues," says Mitsui.
HOBP's Oda says the selection of the test sites has been partly designed to clarify the government's position on sustainable energy. "We want to show that we intend to expand usage of sustainable energy," he says. "This is a statement of our intentions, our rallying call." But the effect on power companies has yet to be seen.
With a population of around 360 people and total power usage of less than 1MW, Awashima island off the coast of Niigata in the Sea of Japan is not exactly crying out for new energy.
Study groups are being conducted on the island to introduce the idea of sustainable energy to the islanders, and the island hopes to develop offshore wind as part of a "smart community" that would include the broader Niigata prefecture. No firm schedule has yet been set and when the necessary environmental assessment requirements are factored in little is likely to happen until 2018, according to a spokesman for the island.
However, the Awashima project is perhaps the most ambitious of the four as it aims to bring together tidal, wave and offshore wind power. "Marine energy has a lot of similarities in its technical challenges with offshore wind, " says Yukinobu Uchida, country manager for Japan at DNV GL. "It therefore makes a lot of sense that both wind and marine energy industry players are working closely together."
Arakawa explains the development of hybrid ocean solutions on the need for Japan to exploit the sixth largest economic exclusion zone in the world more fully in order to develop domestic energy sources.
"I am convinced we can achieve this aim in the near future," he says.
But Japan will have to pick up the pace considerably if it is to match the rate of offshore wind development in northern Europe. "In my view, we need to make targets more aggressive in terms of timescale for prototype testing, commercial operation and energy costs," says Uchida. "The government should hire technical experts for selection and design of sea trial sites because it is absolutely crucial to do it in a professional manner for the successful development of wind energy.