Japan law expected to give wind energy a boost

EcoPower Co. and Japan Wind Development Co. have installed a total of 77 large wind turbines in vacant lots in the village since 2003.

Rokkasho Mayor Kenji Furukawa says the village is suitable for wind farm generation because winds constantly blow throughout the year. "It’s difficult to introduce solar power generators, but there is a potential for wind power generation to spread."

Wind turbines create noise, but a 75-year-old woman living near the generators said it is "better than the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that has caused radiation fears." There are more wind turbines on the Shimokita Peninsula that includes Rokkasho than any other area in Japan.

"Shimokita, which had been known for nuclear energy, is becoming the center of the country’s wind farm generation," says Masato Saito, manager of EcoPower’s Mutsu-Ogawara Wind Farm.

The operation rate of wind power generators, which cannot be operated without wind, is 20-30 percent on average, well above the 12 percent for solar power generators, which cannot generate power at night.

The cost for wind turbines to create power is more than 10 yen per kilowatt per hour, which is higher than liquefied natural gas-powered generators (7-8 yen) but well below that of solar-power generation (40 yen).

Noting that a large wind power generator consists of about 20,000 parts, as many as those for a small vehicle, a high-ranking official with an electric power company pointed out that if wind power generation becomes widespread, it will vitalize manufacturers of parts such as motors and bring about positive economic effects. Moreover, the spread of wind power generation will help create jobs in communities that host such facilities.

Rokkasho Mayor Furukawa says wind power can not be compared to the area’s nuclear fuel recycling plant, for which the national government extends hundreds of millions of yen in subsidies and which along with related industries employs around 30 percent of local residents.

Still, he hopes that wind power generation "will steadily increase jobs for local residents and vitalize the regional economy."

European countries have actively introduced wind power generation. In Germany, wind power generators supply 5 percent of total electric power consumed domestically.

Moreover, the number of sea-based wind power generators is rapidly increasing in Europe, taking advantage of stronger winds than on the ground. Britain is planning to invest more than 15 trillion yen to build a large-scale wind power station in the North Sea with an output equivalent to that of over 30 nuclear reactors.

In sharp contrast, wind power generation accounts for only 0.5 percent of electric power generated in Japan. Most of such generators are concentrated in areas along coasts and mountains in the Tohoku, Hokkaido and Kyushu regions. To sharply increase the amount of electricity generated by wind power generators, the power grid to transmit electricity to big cities where electric consumption is large needs to be reinforced.

The construction of sea-based wind power generators will cost a large amount of money to make them typhoon-resistant. Moreover, fishing rights over areas where businesses are planning to build such generators will pose a serious challenge.

Furthermore, the operators of wind power generators are facing serious financial problems while expectations are rising for renewable energy.

A system under which the government bore one-third of the costs of building wind power plants was abolished in fiscal 2010. What is worse, the cost of building such power generators are rising because steel prices are increasing.

Some companies are withdrawing from the wind power generation industry. Ebara Corp. sold its wind farm generation subsidiary, whose debts had snowballed to about 10 billion yen, to Cosmo Oil Co. in the spring of last year for just one yen on condition that it fully take over the subsidiary’s debts.

However, cost-effective wind power generation may recover from the doldrums after electric power suppliers begin to purchase electricity generated with renewable energy under a new law requiring utilities to buy such power at fixed prices that comes into force in July next year.

Hideaki Matsui, senior researcher with the Japan Research Institute, pointed to the potentiality of wind power generation.

"Wind energy, including offshore wind farm plants, have the most potential of any renewable energy source," he said. "However, the government needs to show a clear goal if it wants such wind power generation to spread."

However, there is a real possibility the law will lack teeth because electric power companies will still be allowed to reject purchases of electricity generated through natural energy, such as solar power and wind power.

"The new law is just a determination of the government (to promote natural energy)," said Hironori Miyauchi, a senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute who questions whether the law will be effective.

Purchase prices depend on deliberations that will be made in the future. If the prices are low, few companies will try to make inroads into the business of power generation through natural energy.

Recently, a growing number of parties have expressed interest in investing in the nonprofit organization Hokkaido Green Fund, which operates 12 wind farms across the nation.

Hiroshi Miyajima,  mdn.mainichi.jp/