For the 344 delegates attending the Japan Wind Energy Association's annual symposium there was more hand-wringing than cheer and more than a sense of déjà vous. As at previous events in recent years, wind turbine manufacturers and engineers lamented a perceived lack of support from government and utilities while the government again rolled out its now familiar list of reasons why Japan's natural environment and physical infrastructure are unsuited to speedy implementation of wind power generation.
Development of battery storage and dedicated back-up for all wind plant was, again, hailed by government as a prerequisite for successful further wind development across Japan. Storage and dedicated back-up are necessary to "stabilise" the grid against the risk that fluctuations in supply from Japan's small number of wind farms will be so big as to affect the entire system, stressed Michiharu Ueda of the government-affiliated Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization. It is a claim hotly refuted by experts, who point to the experience of other countries with far greater proportions of wind power on systems just as isolated as that of Japan (Windpower Monthly, June 2007).
Ueda, however, was only one of several speakers to reiterate the government's position on back-up at the symposium, held November 28-29. "I believe many of you may be dissatisfied, feeling that [government] research into wind power is insufficient," he said. "But this is the reality."
Ueda sought to assure developers that the government is on their side, highlighting work underway to improve techniques for forecasting wind power output. He also said new guidelines for siting wind farms in Japan, a country characterised by mountainous terrain, typhoons and winter lightning, are on the way. "This should greatly improve the conditions for negotiating contracts with power utilities," he said, noting the resistance to accommodate wind power capacity by Japan's utilities thus far.
Even with the new guidelines, however, he said, planning obstacles will remain. Many of Japan's choice locations for wind power are in national parks and project plans for such sites face stiff public opposition, he warned. Achieving Japan's goal for 3000 MW of wind power by 2010, up from just 1400 MW at the end of last year, will be "extremely difficult," he conceded.
The Mitsubishi view
Yoshinori Ueda of Japan's leading wind turbine manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, was less than impressed. "America is putting up turbines like wildfire," he pointed out. "It added some 2500 MW last year and will likely add another 3000 MW this year. In one year, it will add the equivalent of Japan's entire  target and I hear the trend will continue for several years." In fact, America put up more than 5000 MW in 2007.
Positive policy support in the US is the difference, he said, citing America's production tax credit for wind power investment and the increasing number of states implementing mandates for renewables in the supply mix as decisive factors in the industry's success there.
Hiroshi Imamura of the Wind Energy Institute of Tokyo agreed, although he also had some sympathy with the government's position. "The geography [in Japan] is complex, limiting the installation of large-scale turbines in mountainous regions," he said. "With our turbulence and typhoons, it is a bit harder to introduce turbines in Japan than in Europe." Moreover, because Japan's landscape presents unique challenges, he said that battery back-up for wind plant is required "to a certain degree."
Even so, wind power has a vital role to play, Imamura said. For real progress to be achieved, wind needs to be treated by policy-makers as a mainstream energy source worthy of big research budgets, he added. The government's planned installation guide is a "big step" to that end, in Imamura's view.
With petroleum prices soaring and Tokyo Electric Power Company's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the world's largest, mothballed following the earthquake in July, which registered 6.8 on the Richter scale, Imamura said he was confident Japan will eventually come around to the benefits wind power. Delays could prove costly, he warned.
"I am worried whether Europe will even sell turbines to the Japanese market," he said. The indication was that turbine suppliers will prefer to do business in China or India, both with strong policy support. "It is imperative that the government and power utilities send a strong signal of support."