KORIYAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Overlooking a mountain lake a few hours drive from Tokyo, dozens of tall wind turbines spin in the breeze creating carbon-free power for the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.
A sudden change in breeze spins the turbines in a different direction, an apt symbol of Japan’s efforts to shift away from fossil fuels for renewable energy such as wind power to help cut its greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.
Wind farms such as the Nunobiki Plateau Wind Farm on a hill north of Tokyo, which generates enough electricity to power some 35,000 homes a year, have failed to make a dent in Japan’s obligations to cut carbon gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.
But Japan is now looking towards the sea, following in the footsteps of Europe which is the world’s leader in wind energy, by planning a network of offshore wind farms to tap into the gales of the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s worthwhile entering the sector now as offshore technology is at the cutting-edge,” said Mitsutoshi Yamashita, a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official in charge of promoting wind power.
“Once we obtain the technology needed, the kilowatts are limitless,” he added.
Japan hopes that wind power will provide around 0.2 percent of the country’s primary energy supply by March 2011. That figure might rise dramatically if major electric companies follow through with plans to build offshore wind farms near coastal power stations.
The northern Japanese town of Hokkaido, which is the first offshore wind-for-power system outside of Europe, has since 2003 been harnessing the sea breeze with two 600-kilowatt turbines located inside a breakwater less than one km off the coast. That’s enough to power an average of 1,000 homes per year.
“Maintenance is tough,” said Shinya Ono, a town official, explaining the waves were sometimes too high to reach the turbines by boat.
He said that offshore wind energy was double in power to that harnessed on land, but the power it generated was unpredictable when compared with conventional thermal electricity generation.
Nevertheless, sea breezes are seen as more reliable than solar power and wind turbines require less space and lower investment than nuclear and solar plants.
“There’s a good wind year and a bad wind year, and when added up so far, it just breaks even,” Ono said, adding the central government had subsidized construction costs, including turbines the town purchased from Denmark’s Vestas.
In Europe it costs about 50 to 100 percent more to build offshore wind farms to those based on land. In Japan, it could cost even more as the island nation is surrounded by deeper seas.
Japan is set to study the feasibility of offshore wind energy this year. One option might be to follow the example of Scotland, which installed offshore turbines in deep water in 2006.
As part of the study, the government is expected to install an offshore wind turbine to determine best engineering practices for the widespread use of the technology. The domestic industry is expected to make a push towards offshore wind turbines by 2012.
Toru Nakao, an engineering consultant at E&E Solutions Inc., a unit of a Japanese nonferrous smelter Dowa Holdings Co, envisages that Japan might exploit locations several miles off its coastline in the not too distant future.
“It’s challenging for us to catch up,” he said.
Japan, the world’s third largest consumer of oil, is facing increasing pressure to raise its supply of energy from non-polluting sources and reduce its dependence on oil, coal and natural gas, almost all of which are imported from abroad.
Its greenhouse gas emissions in the year to March, 2007 were still 13 percent above the average level it must meet each year over the next five years under Kyoto. Japan’s per capital emissions are among the lowest in the developed world, making it all the more difficult to make further cuts.
Fossil fuels produce two-thirds of Japan’s electricity needs with other sources such as nuclear and hydropower making up most of the difference. Renewable energy sources contribution to Japan’s electricity needs are almost negligible.
By law, electric power companies must more than double their use of renewable energy sources -- wind, solar, small-sized hydro plants, terrestrial heat and biomass -- to 1.35 percent of Japan’s total electricity supply by March 2011.
The 1.35 percent target is modest when compared with a 3.3 percent share for wind power in Europe already. Some analysts say this target may need to rise if Japan is to meet its Kyoto goals.
Another option would be to increase nuclear power, which already generates a quarter of Japan’s needs. However a string of safety scandals has eroded public confidence in nuclear power and construction of new plants would take many years.
Helped by government subsidies since the late 1990s, there are more than 1,300 land-based wind turbines in Japan run by regional governments and companies such as Eurus Energy Holdings Co, Electric Power Development Co and Japan Wind Development Co.
Their wind farms are mainly scattered across rugged areas in the far north or south of the island chain, far from major users.
Summer typhoons, violent lightning in winter, and a country split between two power systems and regional power grids add to the challenges of harnessing wind power.
Yet despite the difficulties, Yoshinori Ueda, a strategic planning manager at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd’s power systems headquarters, said wind power will have to play an increasing part in Japanese power production.
Mitsubishi, Japan’s No.1 wind power turbine maker, is trying to catch up with European rivals with plans to develop sea-based wind turbines in waters near existing power plants, Ueda said.
Separately, Tokyo Electric Power Co, Japan’s biggest electric power company, is together with the University of Tokyo looking into the possibility of a large-scale floating wind farm.
To adhere to government regulations, Tokyo Electric buys electricity from wind farms. But some analysts say big power companies may soon initiate their own wind farms at offshore locations near major industrial ports, where a grid network with existing power plants is available.
Back on land, environmental concerns have slowed down efforts to expand capacity.
A plan to set up 16 huge turbines on the slope near the top of Mount Neko, 160 km north west of Tokyo, has been stuck in the planning stages since 2004.
It faces a barrage of complaints from critics worried that construction will taint water supplies, cause debris flows like the one which caused a fatal disaster at a downstream village in 1981 and threaten native eagles, butterflies and the Japanese serow, a species of goat-antelope.
“Wind is a gift. It’s free of charge. So people tend to assume it’s an easy business,” said Teruyoshi Kimura, 59, former engineer who owns an inn at the foot of Mount Neko.
Editing by Megan Goldin