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With coal power under fire, 2020 could be a big year for wind energy in Japan

TOKYO >> One day, resource- deprived Japan may no longer have to import its energy, nor rely on nuclear power or coal, thanks to a renewable source with vast potential: offshore wind power.

The International Energy Agency said in a November report that by 2040, offshore wind power alone has the potential to meet Japan’s total power demand by over ninefold, and the world’s total electricity demand by elevenfold. The technology could become the world’s mainstay power supply, contingent on the development of floating turbines.

This year will begin Japan’s full-scale development of offshore wind after a new law took effect in April that allows offshore turbines to operate for up to 30 years. Previously, most permits were good for a maximum five years, making it difficult to develop major projects.

The law also designated 11 sites for offshore wind power, and the government is expected to hold public bids as early as this spring for areas off Akita, Chiba and Nagasaki prefectures.

Japan is jockeying to join the new market and follow the success of its neighbors, despite the prevalence of water depths of more than 195 feet surrounding the country — conditions less than ideal for fixed-bottom wind turbines. Development of offshore wind has been accelerating in China and Taiwan, which are known for having an abundance of shallow coastal waters.

Japan’s need for renewable energy sources is growing amid international criticism of its use of coal following the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear crisis in 2011. While solar power accounted for the vast majority of renewable power since then, investments could slow due to various challenges, including a lack of connected grid capacity.

In contrast, there’s ample room to expand offshore wind, and a total of 13 gigawatts worth of projects are in the pipeline, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Ten gigawatts of offshore wind capacity is equivalent to the power generated by about 10 nuclear reactors. Those projects are undergoing environmental assessments, which may take up to five years, said Yoshinori Ueda, a Japan Wind Energy Association board member.

The association estimates that 10 gigawatts of wind capacity will be installed by 2030, which would create direct investments of 5 to 6 trillion yen (about $46.3 to $55.5 million), generate 80,000 to 90,000 new jobs and curb carbon dioxide emissions by 71 million tons.

The potential is huge, but industry sources said the government needs to take a more proactive approach as private companies face a heavy burden, from securing local consent to conducting environmental assessments.

“Taiwan decided to work on offshore wind after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and quickly surpassed Japan,” Ueda said. “Japan is slow. No other country spends as long as five years on environmental assessments. We are requesting that the government take a central role for spearheading offshore wind … so that the private companies would only need to build turbines.”

Offshore wind power capacity in the European Union has grown to around 20 gigawatts, buoyed by strong winds and shallow waters in the North Sea. China has been emerging as a key player after installing more offshore wind capacity in 2018 than any other country. They’re followed by Britain and Germany.

For waters deeper than 195 feet, floating wind turbines are the optimal choice. But the floating turbine industry has yet to fully develop, and just a few commercial projects are operating worldwide.

Japan currently operates offshore wind power plants with a total capacity of just 64 megawatts, including about 5 megawatts from floating turbines.

Japan’s wind power association said the nation has the potential to set up 91 gigawatts of fixed-bottom turbines in the general waters off its coasts. But if floating turbines were developed, opportunities would be “unlimited” further out to sea, Ueda said.

From 2017 to 2018, global grid- connected offshore wind capacity grew 15% to nearly 4.5 gigawatts. According to the international agency, offshore wind annual capacity needs to more than quadruple by 2030 to get on track with the sustainable development goals under the Paris Agreement.

Several companies have been eyeing a slice of the nascent industry. Sumitomo Corp., Japan Renewable Energy Corp. and Japan Wind Developments Co. are planning to build offshore wind turbines to generate more than 1 gigawatt of power in Akita Prefecture alone. Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. plans to build a 370-megawatt offshore wind farm in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, while Toda Corp. has been eyeing a floating wind farm in Nagasaki Prefecture.

Jera Co. is one of the most active players. It is considering a bid to set up several hundred megawatts worth of fixed-bottom turbines in Japan, taking advantage of its experience overseas. That includes a British project with a 173-megawatt capacity, and two projects in Taiwan that will have a total capacity of more than 500 megawatts when completed. It is in discussions to hold a substantial stake in a third 2-gigawatt project.

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