The kamikaze pilots that flew bombing raids and suicide missions against the Allies in World War Two were inspired by a “divine wind” that they believed was keeping their planes aloft in the service of the Japanese Empire. Legend has it that the divine wind from which the word “kamikaze” is translated, referred to a typhoon that saved the Japanese islands from invasion by a Mongol fleet in 1281.
Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, nature continues to exert a powerful influence on the Japanese nation, and we only have to look back four years to see the devastation caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake, as it is known there.
Now, the threat to Japan comes not from outside enemies, but from her own internal weaknesses, particularly the lack of natural resources requiring Japan to either import coal and liquefied natural gas in large quantities, or maintain aging nuclear power plants that remain vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. Related: Oil Rebound May Come Sooner Than Expected
In 2015, the wind that once inspired kamikaze pilots is once again being pressed into service, only now the goal is not a wartime victory, but to move Japan a step closer to energy independence.
As a far-flung island nation, Japan appears to be ideally suited to capturing power from the wind. The country has the sixth largest sea surface in the world, including economic zones allowing resource exploitation, and in Japan the wind blows strong especially during typhoon season.
However, up to now, wind power in Japan has been underutilized, particularly compared to solar. While the Japanese photovoltaic market has risen 7-fold, from 1GW in 2010 to almost 7GW in 2013, growth in wind power has underwhelmed.
The country produces less than one percent of its power from wind turbines, and in 2013 Japan installed 100 times more solar power than wind. According to Wind Power Monthly, Japan has just 2.6GW of installed wind capacity, virtually all of it onshore.
The publication notes that Japan's reluctance to develop offshore wind is down to three factors:
“First, 80% of its offshore resources are in depths greater than 100 meters, far beyond the reach of the conventional fixed-bottom foundations that support the offshore projects on northern Europe's continental shelf. Second, the climate and conditions - typhoons and tsunamis - present formidable challenges to installation and upkeep of wind turbines. Third, Japan's powerful maritime logistics and fishing industries have strongly opposed sharing ocean space with wind developers.”
Another factor is Japan's feed-in tariff requiring electrical utilities to buy renewable energy at set rates. While the tariff has resulted in a big increase in solar panel investment, largely because photovoltaics are relatively easy to install, for wind producers the tariff is less attractive, because high installation costs make small-scale generators unprofitable, according to manufacturers of small wind farms - those whose windmill diameter is less than 7 meters and with generation capacity of 20 kW or lower.
There are encouraging signs however, that Japan's wind-power industry is starting to blow a lot stronger. Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the Japanese government approved a budget of 12.5 billion yen (US$12.2 million) to encourage wind power development, and shortly thereafter, a consortium of 10 companies led by Marubeni Corp began building a floating wind farm offshore of the Fukushima prefecture. The farm, powered by a 2MW turbine, has been generating power since November 2013. A second phase is currently under development to install an additional two 7MW turbines. Related: Off-Grid Solar Threatens Utilites In The Next Decade
Marubeni notes the Fukushima Recovery/Floating Offshore Wind Farm Experimental Project has three themes: "By a team comprising only Japanese members," "to pioneer Japan's new international business," and "to contribute to the recovery of Fukushima."
Marubeni was also recently selected to construct 145MW of offshore wind capacity in northern Japan by 2021. The project is divided into two wind parks. The first park off the northwestern coast of Honshu will have 13 5MW turbines. A second park, located near Noshiro port, will have 16 turbines also providing 5MW each.
If the planned wind farms off Honshu go ahead as planned, they will mean a huge expansion in wind power for a nation that has until very recently shown little interest in the renewable energy form.
According to the World Nuclear Association Japan's electricity utilization rate at the end of 2012 was 295GWe for nuclear, compared to 2.5 GWe for wind, 6.6GWe for solar and 0.5GWe geothermal. The rest of Japan's energy requirements were met from hydro, at 45 GWe, 36 GWe from coal and 47 GWe from natural gas.
The Japan Wind Power Association estimates the country has the potential for 622GW of offshore wind, and 168GW onshore (the association has a goal of 50GW by 2050), however, one must ask to what degree the Japanese citizenry would tolerate such a massive expansion of wind power.
Marubeni's Fukushima offshore wind project was lauded for its ability to produce utility-scale power with equivalent output to a nuclear reactor, but the project also drew criticism from Japanese fisheries unions who opposed it for its potential to destroy fishing grounds and prevent trawler fishing.
Wind skeptics in Japan also point to delays in setting up an offshore wind tariff, and local opposition to onshore wind – proving that the Japanese are no different from other countries in their NIMBYist attitude to wind farms near homes, schools and businesses. Related: Saudi Aramco’s Clever Strategy To Scoop Up America’s Best Energy Talent
The Japanese government solved the first problem a year ago with the introduction of a 36-yen-a-kilowatt-hour subsidy for offshore wind, but the NIMBY issue is obviously more intractable and presents a challenge to the further expansion of wind power in Japan, even in rural areas.
A 2013 study by Ryukoku University in Kyoto showed that while over 80 percent of respondents approved of large-scale wind power projects, 69 percent worried about such projects in their neighborhoods.
NIMBYism was likely a key factor in why Japan has moved its wind farms offshore, so it will be interesting to see whether more ocean wind power proceeds unobstructed, or whether industry lobby groups, like the Fukushima fishermen, will lobby to prevent further incursions into traditional Japanese industrial activities.
By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com
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