Energy strategy - Nuclear debacle offers better chance for wind

JAPAN: Before the March earthquake and tsunami forced the damaged Fukushima 1 nuclear plant to be shut down, Japan planned to generate half of its electricity from nuclear power plants by 2030.

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A more suitable figure now would be 10-20%, according to Yoshinori Ueda, head of the Japanese Wind Power Association's (JWPA) international committee and assistant general manager of strategic planning at Mitsubishi. Ueda thinks Japan's wind industry has the potential to fill the gap left by the reduced nuclear generation. The wind industry should be emboldened by this opportunity and must exploit it fully, he says in an interview with Windpower Monthly.

There is no shortage of public and political support for a new energy path. Masaru Kaneko, professor of economics at Tokyo's Keio University, says that Tokyo Electric Power Company's (Tepco) "delays in disclosing information and constantly changing explanations" have resulted in a shift in public opinion towards the anti-nuclear camp.

At the G8 summit at the end of May, the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, acknowledged his country's increased scepticism surrounding nuclear and moved the deadline for achieving 20% of power generation from renewables forward from 2030 to 2020.

JWPA maintains that wind power should supply 10% of the country's electricity, adding that it is a cheaper and more established clean-energy source than photovoltaic, biomass and geothermal. "We want to say by 2020, but this is unrealistic," says Ueda. "Before Fukushima we said we had to achieve it before 2050.

But after Fukushima, we hope to have it earlier, by 2030-40. Meanwhile, we have requested that the Japanese government achieve 10GW onshore and 1GW offshore by 2020."

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, which represents the country's electricity utilities, says that 5GW of wind power by 2020 is the upper limit. Right now there is 2.3GW of installed wind capacity in Japan, providing 0.4% of the country's electricity. Nuclear was providing 28% of the electricity supply, but this was reduced to 24% after the Fukushima 1 and Hamaoka nuclear plants were shut down.

Japanese experts wrote in the World Wind Energy Report 2010 published by the World Wind Energy Association in April that "offshore wind is the most powerful tool in Japan to increase the total accumulation of wind turbines" and that "wind power will be found to be the most powerful new energy system in Japan". In 2006, research conducted off the country's east coast in a joint project by Tokyo University and Tepco suggested offshore wind farms could meet at least 10% of Japan's electricity needs.

Recent JWPA estimates of how much wind power capacity could viably be installed by 2020 rose to 133GW from a 2007 calculation of 81GW. "Wind potential must be re-evaluated based on the latest analytical methodology while factoring in wind power technological development of recent years and current geographical data," says the report.

Japan already has three offshore wind farms. Two of them - Setana in Hokkaido prefecture and Sakata in Yamagata prefecture - are in areas very similar to European offshore sites. The sea is sheltered and there are no typhoons, but they are located in rural seaside areas so the main problem is connectivity to populated areas. However, on the heavily populated eastern side of Japan, the conditions are entirely different.

Ueda thinks that to capitalise on offshore development Japan will have to build wind farms on the Pacific Ocean side. This is a huge challenge. "We have to improve on European offshore wind design to accommodate different-shaped waves, tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons," he says. "We need a national project for this. After this project, the technical problems will be wiped away, so we will be able to expand wind power in these zones," he says.

JWEA had already negotiated a 380MW offshore programme with Tepco, located in shallow waters - about 7-10 metres deep - off the coast near Tokyo. "But since the earthquake, Tepco is very busy, so now we have to reschedule it," says Ueda. "JWEA was planning a demonstration machine in this area, but Kashima port was destroyed in the earthquake, so now the project will be postponed until summer 2012."

Technical leadership

Japan is aiming to be a world leader in the so-called "battle-proof design" of offshore wind turbines. JWPA draws attention to the fact that the Kamisu semi-offshore wind farm became the world's first such structure to survive a large tsunami. Located about 300 kilometres from the earthquake's epicentre and adjoining Kashima port on the east coast of Japan, Kamisu's seven 2MW machines endured shaking of five-plus on Japan's intensity scale, which has a maximum level of seven, as well as the 5-metre-high tsunami that hit this area. The wind farm survived the shocks and was fully operational again three days later.

This suggests that the anti-earthquake construction design of wind farms in Japan is very reliable. A significant amount of Japanese research is concentrating on deepwater offshore turbines. Ueda says Japan wants to learn how to develop a commercially viable offshore market at home: "We want to combine the technology developed by our offshore scientists and engineers with the commercial expertise of the UK - currently the only place to have a market operating in the offshore sector, introducing a large amount of wind power in a short time and attracting companies such as Mitsubishi, GE and Clipper," he says.

According to Ueda, the Japanese environment ministry plans to create a development fund. But Ueda thinks it is too early for this. He believes you need a cost-effective market before investing in technology. Ueda's vision is of a fund administered by the ministry for trade and industry to connect to a new market.

"The ship-building industry is very keen to embrace the opportunity offshore wind development presents," he adds.

Despite its offshore ambitions, Japan suffers no shortage of onshore potential. A report released by the environment ministry last year estimates that Japan has a theoretical wind resource of as much as 1,900GW, including 300GW onshore and 1,600GW offshore. However, the best resource is in the sparsely populated northern regions of Hokkaido and Tohuko with correspondingly few grid lines, and the country's main obstacle to onshore wind is grid connection.

Linked up

Most of the population in Japan is concentrated in the central areas of Kanto-Tokyo, Chubu-Nagoya and Kansai-Osaka. These areas have poor wind resources and are far from wind-rich Tohuko and Hokkaido.

Transmission could be eased by connecting a large grid line through Hokkaido, Tohuko and Kanto. But unlike Europe, where each national grid tends to be overseen by one company, Japan has ten autonomous electricity companies - each generating and transmitting power for its own region. So far, the electricity companies have shown no interest in paying for this line, giving up their regional monopolies or splitting transmission and generation. The government also refuses to pay for the grid line on the grounds that the electricity companies should foot the bill.

The resulting stalemate may be changing post-Fukushima. The earthquake jeopardised Tokyo's electricity supply, forcing it to import electricity from neighbouring power companies. The grid lines between the electricity companies currently only transmit up to 1GW, so this could not be achieved efficiently.

An expansion of inter-grid capacity and a large grid line connecting Tohuko and Chubu would greatly help wind power's penetration in Japan. Ueda thinks it is up to the government to force the electricity companies to invest. He sees that the disaster has caused a chink in the armour of the power companies. "After Fukushima, we are hoping to open a discussion about this. Before Fukushima they refused to discuss it," he says. But he acknowledges that it would be unrealistic to expect to see this investment realised before 2030.

Although pre-disaster plans to generate half of Japan's electricity from nuclear power are now greatly reduced, Ueda acknowledges that wind power has very tough competition to plug the gap. He elaborates: "I think that Japan will turn to natural gas combined-cycle high-efficiency power plants before wind. We have already got several orders for electricity companies to build new natural gas plants, and gas prices are going down because there is abundance of natural gas in the US (because of) shale gas."

Long-term security

Although cheap gas is an attractive option for the Japanese in the short term, Ueda points out that long-term energy security needs to be taken into consideration. "We have to find domestic natural resources," he says. "After the oil shock in 1973 people thought it was very dangerous to rely on oil because it was imported from far away. Nuclear is easy to store, so it is seen as a semi-domestic energy source. So we shifted from crude oil to nuclear." After Fukishima, the public is reacting very strongly against nuclear.

Despite the undeniable opportunities the earthquake opened up for other energy sources, in the short term it has paradoxically caused a delay for renewable-energy projects that were already underway.

When the liberal-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gained power in 2009, it decided to review the financial support mechanism for wind. Despite initial construction-cost subsidies of up to about 30%, the 1% target set in the renewable portfolio standard had proved too low to stimulate the market, the new government concluded.

The DPJ plans to bring in a law introducing mandated purchase prices, a so-called feed-in tariff, for all the power generated from renewable-energy sources from April 2012. This was supposed to be decided in June, but has been postponed due to emergency earthquake legislation taking priority.

The intervening lack of a definite financial support mechanism has in effect worked as a moratorium on new installations and caused Japan to miss its goal of 3GW of wind energy by 2010. JWPA expects new projects to start soon after the new law is passed later this summer.

Ueda finds that wind is often a victim of the Japanese political system. In his experience, there is a structural lack of joined-up thinking at ministerial level. However, some of these problems may soon become a thing of the past, according to Ueda. "We hope that there is new momentum, post Fukushima, for overcoming some of the hurdles that have been placed previously in the path of the wind industry."


Martin Foster reports from post-Fukushima Japan

In the months since the natural disaster hit Japan in March, public opposition to nuclear power has grown enormously while politicians have been sending out mixed messages on the country's energy strategy.

A possible shift towards renewable energy appeared to get a huge boost on May 10, when the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, said Japan would fully review its energy policy. He later said that Japan "aims to have ten million solar-powered homes by 2020". But Kan's comments contain no direct reference to Japan abandoning its nuclear policy, leaving him in a delicate political position - he survived a no-confidence vote on June 2 - where both the public and his party are wondering how far his support for renewables will go.

The implied scale of Japan's switch from nuclear to renewables would be massive. At present only 0.3% of the country's electricity needs are met through solar and geothermal energy, 0.4% by wind power, 1.1% by biomass and 8% by hydropower. This is a very low starting point for a country that relies heavily on imported energy.

Post Fukushima, significant elements of Japan's powerful business community, which has a reputation for being conservative, have sought to advertise their support for renewable-energy sources. One of Japan's largest credit unions - community-based financial institutions that provide loans to the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up 90% of Japan's companies - made a rapid shift to an anti-nuclear stance.

On April 8, the Tokyo-based Jonan Shinkin Bank, with total assets of JPY 3.6 trillion ($44.3 billion), ran a message on its website noting that nuclear power no longer provided a bright future for Japan's people but harboured the risk of "irreversible dangers". The bank followed up on April 30 by offering higher interest on fixed-term deposits to savers who buy solar panels, generators, storage batteries or LED lighting.

Masayoshi Son, CEO of telecommunication company SoftBank Mobile and Japan's richest individual, spoke publicly for the first time about new energy sources on April 20 at a meeting of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's recovery and reconstruction study committee with members of the lower house of parliament. Reportedly prepped on renewable energy by Tetsunari Iida - one of Japan's main authorities on renewable energy and a veteran-turned-critic of the nuclear industry - Son is backing solar and is certain to play a large role in raising the profile of renewables.

Nuclear lobby

Despite the stronger support for renewables, it would be naive to underestimate the role nuclear energy plays at the heart of the Japanese establishment. The so-called "nuclear village" is an elite group of around 34,000 people - utilities' top officials, high-ranking bureaucrats, reactor makers, scientists and academics - who have protected the interests of Japan's foray into the supposed safe use of nuclear power for decades.

One player in this nuclear village has been Toshiba, which in 2006 bought nuclear company Westinghouse Electric from British Nuclear Fuels for $5.4 billion in a signature acquisition that signalled Toshiba's intention to refocus its business and export nuclear technology to power-thirsty countries such as China.

The extent of the turnaround on nuclear policy was evident on May 23, when Toshiba announced a tie-up with Korean wind power firm Unison, inaugurated with a JPY 3-billion purchase of Unison convertible bonds and possibly leading to Toshiba taking a 30% stake in the Korean company over the next year, as reported in Japan's major business newspaper, the Nihon Keizai Shinbun.

With the Japanese global brand image in tatters following the March disaster, Toshiba president Norio Sasaki reportedly said on May 24: "If everyone around the world is against nuclear power, there is no point in us saying it is a pillar of our strategy."

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