Some progress despite policy barriers

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Three electricity companies in Japan are clearing the path for more wind on their grids, even though utility and government policies reveal that the country remains ambivalent about the technology's future role on the national power system

Tohoku Electric Power, a major power provider in Japan, says it has increased its estimate of the amount of wind power allowable on its network across the northern Honshu main island "without inconveniencing our customers" to 850 MW from its earlier limit of 520 MW. It is not alone in moving an inch forward in its willingness to accept wind power. Kyushu Electric, serving one of Japan's southern main islands, also says it can accommodate 1 GW of wind power on its grid, up from its previous estimate of 700 MW. Meantime, Hokuriku Electric is requesting proposals for supply of about 100 MW of new wind capacity from large scale suppliers offering wind plant with rated capacities of at least 20 MW to bring its total to around 250 MW.

Making good on its decision to make more room for wind power on its system, Tohoku Electric, recently granted six wind power developers answering a tender last year preliminary approval to link up 80 MW of combined capacity. Tohoku's picks were three wind projects by M&D Green Energy's in Aomori Prefecture with a combined capacity of about 50 MW; a 20.7 MW project in Niigata Prefecture by Japan Wind Development; and just under 2 MW each from five small projects across the region.

Storage and curtailment

The utility, however, requires large scale projects to be equipped with battery storage systems to manage power supply, adding cost. For its part, respondents to Hokuriku Electric's tender must accept that their wind power may not be allowed onto the grid when demand for electricity is low, because it may destabilise the grid. Hokuriku Electric expects to refuse wind power about 20% of the time on average during a year. More could be turned away if overall electricity demand is low.

Similar attitudes toward wind are seen within the government in Japan, where just 186 MW was installed in fiscal year 2007, down from a record 407 MW in one year set in fiscal year 2006. The big drop in the growth rate makes the country's target of 3 GW of wind by 2010 harder to attain.

Speaking at Japan's 30th Wind Energy Symposium, held November 27-28 in Tokyo, Shoji Watanabe from the economy, trade and industry ministry presented a long term energy scenario in which renewables will grow from about 5.9% of total electricity supply in 2005 to 11.1% by 2030. Wind power is to increase by as much as six times over the period.

But Watanabe, who called himself "basically" a supporter of wind, said such a trajectory would be "quite high" and "difficult to achieve." One concern, he said, is that introducing more wind power might increase energy costs. Noting that there are now about 1400 wind turbines in Japan, he worried that because so many are on the northern island of Hokkaido and slightly further south in Aomori Prefecture -- far from major population centres -- expansion of wind power will bring added transmission costs that will have to be reflected in prices.

While offering that purchase prices for wind power fixed by government may be effective in encouraging wider use of wind and other renewables, he said they may also lessen incentives to reduce costs and risk. "It may not be desirable to set tariff systems in place that result in guaranteed profits," he said, stressing that his opinion was personal.

Watanabe urged Japanese turbine manufacturers to take a bigger share of the domestic market. Although turbines made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have sold well abroad, mainly in America, Japan's domestic market is dominated by the European majors. The proportion of total wind power generated by domestic turbines had risen to nearly 20% in 2005, but since then has fallen back to 16%. Watanabe prodded Japanese wind turbine manufacturers to be more like their counterparts in the domestic solar sector, which command strong market share worldwide.

The government's hesitant wind power policies, particularly its fear of integrating wind into the Japanese power system, riled delegates from the industry. Manufacturers speaking on the sidelines complained about the insistence by several utilities that battery power storage be installed at wind power plant -- an obligation that despite the burden it places on power producers has been tacitly backed by government. One prominent wind expert called on the government to increase incentives to wind under Japan's green power mandate, which requires 1.63% of the country's total power supply to come from renewables by 2014 -- a sliver compared to the 20% share typically sought in major economies elsewhere.

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