Town’s energy need blows in the wind

TACHIKAWA, Yamagata Pref. — On a cloudy winter afternoon, a cold, fierce wind blowing from the Sea of Japan relentlessly turns three large windmills on a hill. Inside a nearby building with an oval-shaped roof, a man in work clothes keeps an eye on the windmills’ control console, checking the rotors, each measuring 18 meters in diameter.”The second rotor’s output has plunged. The wind may have been too strong and activated the circuit breaker,” Kanehiko Abe says. Abe, 40, is the windmill project chief of the Tachikawa Municipal Government. He plays a key role in what has become Japan’s first attempt to commercialize wind-generated electricity.The project started in 1991 as a tourist attraction. But when entrepreneurs and municipalities such as Tachikawa, which suffer from depopulation, saw the windmills, another use caught their minds. Windmills such as these could be money makers not just as attractions, but as power generators. For Tachikawa, the idea came in the late 1980s, when then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s administration allocated 100 million yen to municipalities nationwide in a bid to stimulate local economies. “People here wondered what to do with (the money),” Abe said. “As we had long been troubled by a fierce seasonal wind called ‘kiyokawa-dashi,’ we agreed to spend it to harness the wind for our own sake.”But few options seemed available to Tachikawa, a rural town in rugged mountains where nearly 20 percent of the 7,800 residents are over 65 years old and most of the workforce has moved to larger cities. “I must confess that this town is exactly like any other aging community in Japan,” Abe said. “Whatever eye-catching project we tried to start, we soon faced financial and human-resource problems.”Local government officials first dreamed of creating an amusement park with symbolic windmills, similar to Huis Ten Bosch, a popular park with a Dutch theme in Nagasaki Prefecture. But that idea had to be scaled down, Abe said.The town eventually decided the only feasible option was to rely on the central government and participate in experimental windmill projects that had been subsidized by the Science and Technology Agency since the early 1980s. “What a rural town can do is limited,” Abe said. “If there had not been Tokyo’s support or increasing public awareness of the need for clean energy at that time, the project could have been saddled with financial difficulties.”Abe, a member of the project team, focused on finding a more practical way to use the windmills when he toured Europe in October 1991 to learn about attempts for wind power generation there. “I realized that Japan was many years behind its European counterparts in introducing alternative energy sources,” he said, adding that he felt strongly that Japan must take action.Statistics show the United States was the top wind-power generating country in 1995, with a total output of 1.77 million kw, followed by Germany, Denmark and India. Japan ranked 13th, with a capacity of 10,000 kw. In January 1993, Tachikawa erected three U.S.-made windmills in a theme park named “Windorm Tachikawa.” With a total output of 300 kw, the three mills generate electricity equivalent to what 100 households would use.Abe said the first priority for the wind-generated electricity is lighting up the windmills and supplying energy to the park. The rest is sold to Tohoku Electric Power Co. for 16 yen per kw. Of the 137,000 kwh generated by the windmills in 1995, 128,000 kwh was sold to the utility company. Though total sales were about 2.2 million yen, only 700,000 yen was left after operating costs.But even this figure is somewhat misleading, Abe says. After all, Tohoku Electric Power purchases the wind-generated electricity at 16 yen per kw — a rate that Abe says would never bring profits to the company. “I must admit that business feasibility of wind power generation in Japan still remains low,” he said. “After all, wind-generated electricity will cover only a small percent of Japan’s total energy supply in the next decade.”