Policy hopes fade in Japan

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As expected by most industry observers, last year was a poor one for wind development in Japan and the future looks no brighter. Just 139 MW of capacity was installed, compared with 333 MW the year before, bringing the cumulative total to 1538 MW by the end of 2007.

With growth slowing, reaching the country's target for 3000 MW of wind by 2010 looks increasingly impossible. One time wind industry optimism for significant improvements in Japan's wind market structure have faded. An emission reduction plan published by the government last month ranked promotion of new energy last on its list of priorities, behind energy conservation by industry, tighter transport fuel standards and making municipalities greener. New renewable energy legislation is part of the plan, but it will focus on bioethanol, says a source within the government's environment department, confirming the government's implicit resistance to wind power.

The government wants emissions slashed to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. Renewable energy is expected to contribute just under 4% of the total emission cuts required, equivalent to the sector saving 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. No specific contribution from wind power has been determined, but the government concedes the country is unlikely to meet its 2010 wind target.

Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation has been lending its support to various wind projects in the form of debt guarantees and preparation of a much anticipated wind development guideline on locations for new capacity in view of geographical and meteorological restraints. The organisation has also focused a deal of its support on research into battery storage, adopting the utility line that wind farms need dedicated back-up supplies.

Wind developers, including the country's leaders, Eurus Energy Holdings, J-Power and Japan Wind Development, acknowledge the constraints placed on development due to Japan's unique topography, but have argued that sensible expansion of transmission capacity would allow differences in wind supply and customer load to balance one another across the entire power system with only a modest increase in reserve generation required. Not only is this a cheaper solution than storage, it would enable the country's wind targets to be met. Their case continues to fall on deaf ears.

Offering some glimmer of optimism, Hiroshi Nagai of the Japan Wind Energy Association says he is encouraged by ongoing research into large scale offshore wind projects. He suggests construction on Japan's first offshore project could start as soon as 2009/2010. Another reason to at least be grateful, he adds, is that authority apathy when it comes to wind power has not jeopardised the subsidies available. These remain in place. Nevertheless, permits for new construction have been held up for months, largely due to a tightening of regulations in the wake of a recent scandal over falsification of safety data in the condominium and hotel construction industry. It is unclear how long the bottleneck will last.

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