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The answer is blowing in the wind

Cheap, safe and secure -- wind power is a no-brainer for Japan

by Stephen Hesse

Let me be honest from the outset: I’m a serious fan of wind power, and I’d love to see Japan become a world leader in wind-power generation. I’ll admit, too, that my reasons are partly selfish.

I live in Japan and am raising my child here. Japan is the only home my son knows. My fervent hope is that he will grow up in a nation he is proud of, in a country where decision-makers understand that true national security means prioritizing human health and a healthy natural environment.

Realizing this hope will mean weaning Japan off its dependence on oil and nuclear power, but that should prove to be a win-win situation, as both these energy sources threaten Japan’s long-term national security.

Burning oil to generate electricity, for example, poses obvious dangers, including air pollution (acid rain, cancer-causing particulates and climate-altering carbon dioxide), oil spills on land and at sea, while infrastructure such as refineries, pipelines and supertankers present tempting targets for terrorists.

Reliance on oil also means Japan has to depend on other nations for its economic lifeblood, which is a major reason why some policymakers advocate nuclear power. Unfortunately, nuclear energy has its own very real dangers. These include stockpiles of deadly waste burgeoning nationwide, and waste facilities and reactors that are highly vulnerable to Japan’s frequent earthquakes.

Attacks on nuclear reactors, waste facilities and fuel shipments are capable of causing inestimable damage to life and property. And although many of Japan’s residents may have been hoping terrorists would limit themselves to American targets, the tragic bombing of the U.N. offices in Baghdad confirmed that all nations and all nationals are fair game.

So this column is a plea to Japan’s bureaucrats in the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — especially those who care about the health and national pride of their own children: Wind power is safe, clean and inexpensive, but it critically needs your enthusiastic endorsement.

No, wind power isn’t perfect. But the biggest obstacle to its success in Japan is lack of political will. That’s where you bureaucrats come in. Japan’s politicians flatter themselves with the notion that they run the nation, but we all know where the real power rests. So the ball is in your court.

Nor will wind power alone replace oil and nuclear power. In fact, it will take decades before alternative energy sources can substantially replace old ones, and wind will play a prominent, but shared, role in the benign new-energy future.

Solar energy also will play a key role, as improvements are made in three areas: passive solar energy use (using the sun’s rays to heat water, houses, etc.), photovoltaic cells (PVCs) that convert sunlight to electricity, and PVCs that electrolyze hydrogen from water.

This means hydrogen, too, has a major role to play in our future. Extracted from natural gas and (preferably) water, hydrogen will be used in fuel cells to power vehicles, homes, buildings and factories. Water will provide new sources of energy as well, including turbines that harness the power of ocean tides and currents.

Improvements in energy efficiency worldwide will also play an important role, and geothermal energy, methane from waste and plant-based biomass, and other natural gases will all be part of long-term energy programs in the new-energy society.

In fairness to the advocates of oil and nuclear power, however, it is worth noting wind power’s shortcomings.

The primary complaints are that wind generators make noise and can obstruct views, that birds can fly into the blades, and that, at up to 150 meters high, the next generation of generators could be a hazard to low-flying aircraft.

Sure, wind-power generators make noise. They are ugly to some and, yes, birds die. But noisy, ugly and dangerous as compared to what? Oil refineries? Nuclear-waste storage sites? Acid rain? Global climate change? Do a full and true cost-benefit analysis, and wind blows away the competition — which is exactly why the energy industry doesn’t want Japan’s bureaucrats to get too enthusiastic about it.

You can’t get much more benign than wind and still generate energy. It is clean (no toxins, air pollution or lethal radioactivity); it is safe (birds apart); generators are modular, vary in size, and can be installed easily on mountain tops or roof tops; generators hook directly into the grid, so they can be active within days, or hours. And as for the threat of terrorism, we should be so lucky to have terrorists wasting their time plotting how to take down a wind-generator tower.

From an insider’s point of view, the prospects for wind in Japan are good, according to Yasuhiko Kano, an employee of CRC Solutions Corp. “Japan is located in a good region for wind and has a lot of expertise in its power sector. Right now, Tohoku and Hokkaido are the main areas for development, because of wind potential and site availability,” Kano explained. CRC sells software that identifies optimal sites for wind-power facilities and forecasts the power available.

Still, wind power in Japan faces several obstacles, Kano noted. “Presently there is too little competition, so the cost of wind power is higher than it should be. Also, utilities still have a negative attitude toward accepting wind power, and leadership from the Japanese government remains weak,” he explained. “Another problem in Japan is that unusual meteorological phenomena, caused by complex terrain, frequent typhoons and thunderstorms, make project development challenging,” he said.

Kano believes that the key to future development will be generators offshore and in conservation areas, though the former are more expensive and the latter are controversial. If wind power is to succeed rapidly, the government will need to approve these two types of projects, as well as offer economic incentives to encourage investment. Kano is hopeful that public opinion will spur government action, and that universities and utility companies will begin to take a more active role in promoting wind energy.

This autumn, Kano will become a father, which has him thinking even more seriously about the future of our environment. “I believe that we have to reconsider the balance in our lives and reconsider our lifestyles, including energy. We should recognize that we cannot rule over the natural world, and that wind is an unlimited natural resource.

“Wind is a gift of the gods, and that is what I want to pass on to my baby,” he said.