Turbine disease hits Japan

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Japan's wind power industry managed to grow in the face of adversity in 2008, with the country adding 141 MW during the year to achieve a grand national total of 1.5 GW. Japan, host to the environmentally focused Toyako G8 summit back in July, has tried to cast itself in a greener light since. Several Japanese electric power companies have announced higher estimates for how much wind power they can allow on their grids, raising hopes for bigger tenders.

Japan has not abandoned its ambivalence toward wind, however: in many cases, the utilities insist on onerous conditions undermining the economics for wind farm operators. Recent calls for proposals from Hokuriku Electric have given the utility the right to unilaterally refuse wind generated electricity during late night periods of low demand. In another recent case, Tohoku Electric insisted that new wind farms be equipped with storage batteries to help smooth variable power supply from wind turbines. This prompted Tokyo based developer M&D to drop its bid to supply 50 MW of power to Tohoku Electric Power Company.

Japanese policy makers continue to mouth support for wind power, but apart from relaxing regulations governing the establishment of wind farms on government-controlled property, they introduced no new market incentives in 2008. Measures loudly promoted by industry advocates, such as government-mandated power purchase prices for renewables, have failed to gain support within government because, say officials, higher energy prices would hurt Japanese industry. Critics of the government stance say strong links between power utilities and Japan's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy present a structural barrier to the introduction of market drivers for wind.

New obstacles to wind may emerge this year. In May, a government-affiliated body is expected to produce the first domestic guidelines for the installation of wind turbines. Given the legitimate risk posed by earthquakes and typhoons in Japan, stringent safety standards are likely to be introduced, increasing the cost of installing wind plant. In addition, there have been rising complaints about the ill effects on health that wind turbines have on nearby residents. In response, Japan's environment ministry recently launched a national survey, raising the prospect of more stringent planning restrictions. As befits a country with a long history of industrial disease, a new term "fusha-byo," or "wind turbine disease," is gaining currency.

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