Japan looks to sea to kickstart sector

JAPAN: Political inertia and resistance from the corporate sector have prevented Japan's wind power sector from distinguishing itself among developed countries. But a new government plan may push the country towards global leadership in offshore wind within a decade.

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The government's Headquarters for Ocean Policy (HOP) is drafting a proposal to pursue offshore wind as a means of circ umventing opposition to onshore development due to complaints about turbine noise. Japanese critics of wind also complain that wind farms mar natural landscapes.

Information about the plan remains sketchy. An official at HOP denies specific capacity targets have been decided, stressing that these depend on the outcome of broader government talks in June aimed at forging a strategy for economic growth. But according to news services, the government targets the installation by 2020 of more than 2,000 wind turbines offshore with combined capacity of at least 10GW. Besides reducing the country's carbon emissions, the reports say the government hopes the offshore endeavour will invigorate the shipping, steel and machinery sectors.

Policymakers hope to draft a scheme within a year and implement it by 2012, according to reports by the Iwate Nippo and the Kahoku Online Network news services. Under study is a framework for utilities to purchase electricity produced by offshore wind farms. In addition, the government also seeks to encourage wave and tidal technology, says Kahoku, adding that the government is mulling financial support for research and development.

Green new leaf

Wind power has historically faced an uphill battle in Japan, the world's second largest economy. Its government long bowed to utility companies' insistence that wind involves prohibitive cost (Windpower Monthly, June 2007).

But Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has tried to usher in a green new era after his centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) put an end to 55 years of virtually unbroken rule by the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last year. The country has now promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020, one of the most ambitious carbon-reduction commitments in the world.

The DPJ also supports feed-in tariffs for all renewable energy and says the government should shoulder the cost of building a more robust, efficient electricity grid able to transmit more renewable power. Its view that the extra cost should be borne by users drew ire from Keidanren, Japan's biggest business lobby, which argues that aggressive policies to reduce emissions could undermine the economy. Another obstacle is a string of scandals that has shaken the DPJ, raising doubts that Hatoyama can remain in office long enough to drive through his green agenda.

The reported offshore ambition would still provide only a fraction of the capacity envisioned by the country's clean-energy sector. Months ago, a study by the Japan Wind Power Association found that Japan can economically install 133GW of wind by 2020, nearly 65% more than previously believed. The study found that far more locations than previously thought are suitable for both onshore wind and offshore wind using turbines tethered to the seabed.

The JWPA says the installation of 29GW of offshore wind using tethered turbines is possible, compared to 18GW in an earlier report. The potential installed capacity of floating turbines is 39GW, little changed from the earlier projection of 38GW.

The JWPA has laid out a plan for Japan to meet 10% or more of its electricity demand with wind by 2050, compared to 0.3% in 2008. This calls for 50GW of wind distributed across the country and consists of 26GW of onshore wind, 7.5GW of capacity from tethered offshore turbines and 16.5GW from floating units.

Some researchers have expressed even greater optimism for offshore. Research from Tokyo University suggested years ago that offshore wind plants alone could service at least 10% of Japan's electricity needs. In a joint project by Tokyo University and Tokyo Electric Power, a team monitored wind conditions at gas rigs off the east coast of Japan's main Honshu island for two years, revealing that annual wind power potential off the coast.

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