Plenty of signs of rapid growth

Support for wind development could well become part of the Japanese government's package for stimulating its ailing economy. This possibility has not gone unnoticed by several of the country's industrial heavyweights who took time out to drop into the annual wind symposium in Tokyo.

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The wind business in Japan is humming -- and nowhere more so than at a Wind Energy Symposium in Tokyo which drew around 400 delegates. With the country's first big wind farms coming up for development, interest in wind power is growing rapidly. Japanese companies long since inactive in the wind industry are being tempted to re-enter the fray, it seems.

The symposium, held November 18-19, was arranged by the Japan Wind Energy Association (JWEA) and the Japan Science and Technology Promotion Fund. Among participants were politicians and public officials from local governments already involved in wind energy. Other delegates included representatives from energy developers and related industries who gathered to hear sales people from six wind turbine manufacturers present their products. The second day of the event was dedicated to broader issues, with reports on the use of wind energy in Japan to date, supplemented by presentations from European wind experts.

"The large number of participants shows an increasing awareness of wind energy," said an optimistic Yukimaru Shimizu, the new chairman of JWEA. Despite Japan's severe economic recession, participants paid ¥20,000 a head to attend. "They only do that, if they are seriously interested in wind energy," said Shimizu.

He sees a ¥10 billion market for wind turbines in Japan in 1999, which, though small in international terms, bodes well for the future. He believes the Japanese market is poised to grow rapidly, reaching around 150 MW in installed wind capacity in 2000, increasing to 3000 MW in 2010 and 30,000 MW in 2030, equal to 10% of Japan's energy consumption in 2030. Today's wind capacity is 20 MW, soon to be doubled by Tomen's development of 20, Bonus 1 MW units (Windpower Monthly, December 1998) and 60-90 MW in three projects planned by Dengen Kaihatsu Co (Windpower Monthly, July 1998). Studies by the public wind energy promotion agency, NEDO, suggest there are sites for 40,000 turbines rated at 1 MW.

Dispersed support

Despite the government's lack of a comprehensive plan for use of wind energy, Shimizu says there are a series of recent initiatives to encourage growth in the sector. He expects an increased budget to support these initiatives in 1999 as part of the government's package to stimulate the lagging economy. Several programs are being discussed to allow private companies access to low interest loans to stimulate semi-public projects, often conducted together with local governments. Such loans will probably be available for wind turbines, says Shimizu. In total he expects government support for wind energy to increase five fold during 1999. "So far the government has only supported relatively small wind projects, but now they are starting to support big wind farms," says Shimizu. Together with the willingness of utilities to sign 17 year power purchase contracts with wind developers, this is an important development, he adds.

Shimizu also believes that more money will be made available from the national budget to support the efforts of local governments to stimulate wind development. He notes that a large part of the state budget is dedicated to building roads and "bridges to nowhere" with the aim of keeping the construction industry going. It supports the LDP government party. But the recent downgrading of Japan's investment status by Moody's, a US credit rating service, is having its effect on government. The wind lobby hopes politicians can see the advantages of investing in money-earning renewables power plant instead of roads which are not required.

With two relatively big wind farms in the planning stages, the profile of the wind industry should be raised considerably this year, says Shimizu. To date the average politician has very little knowledge of wind power. "The more windmills, the more awareness," says Shimizu. Most of Japan's large trading companies now have an eye to the potential of wind, he adds, and could follow the example of Tomen Corp which is the financial strength behind a series of wind farms in Spain, Britain, Italy and the United States. Enron of the US, a large independent energy developer with a wind subsidiary, is also interested, adds Shimizu.

The much improved prospects for the wind market in Japan have taken several big Japanese companies by surprise, and even at the conference the buoyant mood proved to be an eye-opener for many Japanese delegates. Several wondered why only Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is producing wind turbines and why foreign companies dominated the event. On the first day of the seminar, German wind companies DeWind Technik, Enercon, and Nordex Balcke-Dürr held the floor, along with NEG Micon and Vestas from Denmark and Dutch Lagerwey. Mitsubishi was a lone Japanese presence.

"It's rattled the general Japanese pride. They wonder why Japanese companies are not making wind turbines, when foreigners do it," smiles Shimizu. JWEA is neutral when it comes to the nationality of wind turbines, he adds. As long as wind energy is developed -- and the best turbines are used -- the association's aims are fulfilled. Its main job is to inform the general public about wind energy and create awareness of the technology's potential.

New Japanese players

Whispers abound about renewed and new interest in wind turbine manufacture from several Japanese companies other than Mitsubishi, says Shimizu. Some are working on development of wind turbines, he believes. At least one European wind energy consultant was known to meet with several Japanese companies not involved in the wind industry in the days immediately following the symposium. Representatives from Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd were presented at the seminar.

According to Shimizu, foreign turbine makers will probably have to start local production in Japan at some point. He feels the market will grow so rapidly that it will not be sensible to treat Japan as an export-only market. So far only turbine towers are made in Japan.

Public animosity to wind turbine development, so prevalent in some areas of Europe, has yet to become a problem in Japan, but it could well become one, warns Shimizu. "It could be a danger for development for wind energy, giving wind turbines a bad name," he says. "Some developers only think about money and they do not make the necessary ecology assessment studies. This is mainly a problem with small developers. There are a lot of places to put windmills, so why put them places where they irritate people?"

JWEA has been arranging annual wind energy symposiums for the past 20 years and publishes a magazine four times a year. Many members of the association, which organises various other wind related activities, are teachers and people just interested in green energy.

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