“Several issues need to be resolved so that we can develop wind power faster and introduce it on a much larger scale”

Winds of change

Progress and obstacles in Japan’s wind power industry


Text by Alena Eckelmann

Japan’s wind power industry is getting ready to soar.

International and domestic players are introducing new technology and investing in a greater deployment of wind energy. Now it is up to the Japanese government to get the legal and environmental framework in place to help this sector take wing.

Japan is a key market in the APAC [Asia–Pacific] region right now, offering high potential both onshore and offshore,” say Álvaro Bilbao, Siemens Gamesa’s CEO for the APAC region. “We are supporting the country to reach its renewable energy targets.”

In Japan’s Energy Plan, the government has set the direction for the country’s energy policy with a commitment to decrease reliance on nuclear power and increase the use of renewable energy sources.

The objective is to raise the share of renewable energy from 15% in 2016 to 22–24% by 2030. This will include 1.7% of wind power, up from the current 0.6%.

Japan’s total installed wind power capacity reached 3.2 gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2016. The Japan Wind Power Association (JWPA) believes that targets of 10GW by 2020 and 36GW by 2030 are realistic.

“Several issues need to be resolved so that we can develop wind power faster and introduce it on a much larger scale,” explains Yoshinori Ueda, general manager of communications at JWPA. “We need to reduce installation costs; improve the electric grid infrastructure; install large, high-performance turbines; promote offshore wind power; and activate a domestic supply chain.”

In many places in Japan the average wind speed is between 5 and 7 metres per second (mps) — too weak for wind power generation. Or else, the land is mountainous, making it difficult to install windmills.

“Good candidates are seaside plains and hillsides in Hokkaido and Tohoku with an average wind speed of 8mps,” says Ueda. “So, 88% of planned wind energy projects in Japan are located there.”

Rural areas have low population density and, consequently, a lower demand for electricity and a weak electric grid. Wind-power developers want more electricity to be fed into these areas, but power supply is curtailed by the owners of the grid — Japan’s big electric power companies.

“An expansion of the grid and strengthening of power lines are necessary, which requires a substantial investment,” Ueda states. “Japan’s electric power companies are not prepared to carry this cost and are requesting that wind power developers pay. However, we cannot accept such a costly solution.”

The 2016 EBC white paper points to cumbersome standards and regulations in Japan, such as land use schemes and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), as reasons for slow progress of large-scale wind power projects.

“The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of the Environment are currently considering a shortening of the Environmental Impact Assessment process by half, as well as an upgrade of the application size for turbines under the EIA from the current 10MW [megawatts] to 50MW,” says Ueda. “Foreign wind-turbine manufacturers have good prospects in the Japanese market if they offer class-T wind turbines that can withstand tropical cyclones but also achieve a high performance at a low average wind speed.”

Domestic firm Hitachi has developed its own unique system to handle the strong winds that frequently assail Japan. The particular configuration of its wind turbines reduces the wind load by positioning the rotor downwind of the tower, meaning that it is not subject to crosswinds even if power generation is halted because of high winds.

“Compared to an upwind rotor configuration, our system not only improves the safety of turbines in strong winds but it also reduces the cost of installing foundations or floating platforms used for offshore turbines,” says Hideaki Imachi, public affairs and government relations officer at Hitachi’s Power and Energy Business Administration Division.

The company has developed a range of wind-turbine generator systems that cover the 5MW, 2.5MW, and 2MW classes. And it now has the infrastructure to handle all activities from development and design to manufacturing, sales and maintenance of its wind turbines.

As the offshore wind market in Japan expands, the demand for partners with experience in investments, project development and installations of offshore wind farms is growing.

“Offshore development in Japan is expected to reach a mature phase with some new projects executed within two to three years,” says Bilbao of Siemens Gamesa.

The Spanish-German turbine maker has been present in Japan for 20 years. Some 237 of its wind turbines, capable of producing 416MW, have been installed and have been in commercial operation since 1999. In addition, another 47 wind turbines (representing 155MW) are currently being installed here. Siemens Gamesa also has a strong footprint in the rest of Asia. It has installed turbines producing more than 11.3GW in several Asian markets, with 5GW in India alone.

While this level of installed capacity sounds impressive, it is the wind power penetration level that really reflects a country’s commitment to wind energy. In this regard, Denmark is leading the world.

Onshore and offshore, wind turbines currently provide more than 37.6% of Denmark’s electricity. The ratio is expected to reach 50% by the end of 2021 and 100% by 2050.

“Visionary politicians, a committed industry and strong R&D have made Denmark one of the global leaders today,” says Danish Ambassador to Japan Freddy Svane. “We develop cutting edge and holistic solutions that range from efficient wind turbines to smart electric grids.”

Denmark has been a first mover in the wind industry for decades and has become a role model for other countries. Representatives of Japanese firms regularly tour key sites in Denmark and meet experts from the Danish wind industry in order to gain expertise in this area.

“Offshore solutions are rapidly expanding as a suitable and sustainable option for electricity generation worldwide,” says Ambassador Svane. “I hope that Japan will tap into her huge potential for offshore wind. It will be win-wind.” 

“Japan is a key market in the APAC region right now”