New kind of delegate attracted to conference

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Political interest in wind energy is blowing at full force in Japan, while competition among wind developers has intensified considerably, forcing prices down and bettering wind's image. These were two of the main messages to emerge from a two day symposium hosted by the Japanese Wind Energy Association (JWEA) in Tokyo in November.

Japan is now producing around 80 MW of wind power, up from 18 MW a year and a half ago. Although this is still only 0.3% of total energy output in Japan, the fast and steady growth has encouraged a shift in the focus of the annual symposium -- away from general introductions of wind turbine suppliers and toward a busy schedule of technical presentations and results from research projects. In one session, a representative from the trading company and wind developer Tomen Corp gave a first hand view of how to develop and run Japan's so far largest wind farm, the 20 MW project on the island of Hokkaido (Windpower Monthly, November 1999). He was followed on the podium by local mayors, who told about their experience with smaller wind farms. Then, representatives from the Japanese government's New Energy Development Organisation (NEDO) gave a presentation of the current wind situation in Japan today.

"The mix of people attending our seminar has changed," said Yukimaru Shimizu, chairman of JWEA. In the past, he added, the seminars were attended by people interested in wind energy but not necessarily working with wind. The around 300 delegates at the latest seminar were mostly from developer companies, utilities, construction and other professions.

Wind energy in Japan has mostly been promoted by local politicians who want to construct a cluster of wind turbines or single machine near their town or village. The Ministry of Industry and Trade (MITI) is mostly responding to these types of initiatives, as well as private business. During the last two years, however, big wind developers in the form of trading companies and other firms have been racing to set up ever larger wind farms. Japan, though, lacks a wind energy policy at national level, to enable co-ordination of all the activity. "[MITI] has not published a vision or a target for wind development," said Shimizu.

This situation might change, he added. A group of politicians from various parties in parliament have established a study group for wind energy. This is a good beginning, and if it actually results in a blueprint for developing wind energy, it will be a great step forward.

More than a toy

One important point to note, he said, is that the political interest in wind energy is not necessarily related to the country's most severe nuclear accident, which happened in September at Tokaimura in Ibaraki prefecture. "As people do not generally know about the alternatives to nuclear and oil, it is difficult for them to ask for such a new form of energy," Shimizu explained. But this will change as more wind turbines dot the Japanese landscape. Today, it is not uncommon for people to have at least seen a wind turbine on television, and they realise it is not a toy, but a real energy supplier, he commented.

At the same time, many smaller towns and villages have been promoting their wind turbines as a kind of tourist attraction. In this way wind energy is not only producing wind, but also local jobs and extra income when tourists dine at restaurants and spend money locally. The tourist promotion has been a powerful incentive for smaller villages, which are often struggling with depopulation and lack of jobs.

Reverse effect

Shimizu also discussed how the utility decision to limit wind development on the main island of Hokkaido might, ironically, actually help spread the use of wind energy in Japan. Hokkaido Electric Power Co -- facing applications for construction of well over 500 MW of wind plant -- recently slapped on a cap of 60 MW until March 2002. As a result, competition for the available contracts was fierce between a number of wind developers, and prices were reportedly driven down as a result. Projects proposed by three business groups were selected (Windpower Monthly, December 1999).

"The competition has changed the image of wind energy for the better," said Shimizu. Until the Hokkaido tender, wind was viewed as expensive energy. According to Shimizu, its cost was about 150% higher in Japan than in Europe. Today, the difference has dropped to 10-40%. The fat has mostly been cut from the profit of middlemen and the turbine makers have probably also had to reduce their profit margins, he said. Other conference delegates feared that the tough competition could deter new developers from entering the field.

Time will tell what the ultimate effect of the mini-price war will be. Fired by Hokkaido's example, several utilities are showing interest in issuing limited wind power tenders, with the result that wind developers are already forming plans for elsewhere in the country -- from southern Kyushu to the northern Aomori prefecture. The Japanese agents of foreign suppliers are likely to be keener than ever to compete on price with more tenders on the horizon. In Japan, change does not usually happen until there is foreign competition -- but then change comes very quickly indeed.

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