TOMAMAE, Hokkaido — They tower above the ocean on bluffs and farmland, spinning like otherworldly contraptions misplaced on Hokkaido’s bucolic coast. But the livestock don’t seem to mind.
The windmills popping up in Tomamae are a sign of things to come. In the north of the town, two town-run mills will be joined by a bigger one by December.
To the south, about 10 km away, Tomen Power Tomamae Corp., a wind power affiliate of Tomen Corp., has gone into business on a stretch of farmland owned by the town. Electric Power Development Corp., a government-sponsored group, will also soon join the game.
Tomen’s 20 1-mw windmills — which make up the nation’s largest wind-farm — started turning in November. Other areas have stronger winds, but Tomen was enticed by the enthusiasm of Tomamae’s residents. The town has vigorously, and possibly quixotically, embraced wind-power.
“People here always knew the wind was strong,” said Tadashi Watanabe, head of the project promotion team.
In the past, the town used the wind to host kite festivals. More recently it decided to harness it for energy.
Around 1998, the town concluded more than two years of surveys, confirming a collective hunch: the area’s wind could support a windmill.
“We were obviously aware that the wind is strong here, but at that time we had no information about wind-generated power,” said Shiju Sakagawa, vice priest at a local Buddhist temple and former representative of Love Toma 21, a group committed to improving Tomamae.
In 1993, he read in the newspaper that the town’s winds were among the strongest in Japan and broached the windmill idea at a Love Toma meeting. The following year, he learned that the mayor was mulling over what wind power could potentially mean to the town as well.
Both Watanabe and Sakagawa talk about the symbolic value of the windmills as a source of clean energy, especially as the world grapples for ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions to slow climatic change.
The town’s windmill park will be completed when the third and final windmill goes up later this year.
Below the mills are a swimming area and a beach with imported white sand that have the machines as a scenic backdrop. Likewise, the spinning propellers are also the theme for the posh Tomamae Onsen Fuwatt — a pun on the reading for the kanji for wind and watt — that opened next door in May.
Today, the hopes of the town government, locals and at least one corporation hang on the rapidly twirling arms of these windmills.
Local citizens hope the windmills will help boost the economy and stem the slowly declining population, which now stands at around 4,600.
Tomen hopes to prove that wind-power is economically viable and reliable, as well as to sign more contracts with power companies.
Sakagawa has ideas of his own. He envisions a system, something akin to the “guild system” he learned about on a visit to Denmark. It would allow group members to jointly finance windmill construction on their own property by selling the power to the grid.
“But without a revised legal system, establishing a guild will not be easy,” he said, adding that he has high hopes for a law being considered that would encourage new and renewable energy systems.
Not unlike Sakagawa’s idea is the Hokkaido Green Fund, which only got started last year. The fund is an offshoot of a program which the Seikatsu Club cooperative initiated, also last year.
Fund members pay their electric bills plus 5 percent to the fund office, which remits the amount of the bill to Hokkaido Electric Power Co. and puts the extra 5 percent into a fund. The pooled money is set aside for clean energy schemes, starting with a windmill.
“We want to accelerate the involvement of citizens, because this is something we must tackle as a community,” said fund head Toru Suzuki.
In the six months since its inception, membership has reached 740 households. But the money accrued is nowhere near that needed for a windmill — around 100 million yen for a 600-kw machine.
“(The fund) is not just about raising money and adding renewable energy alternatives. Reducing energy consumption even a little bit is also key to a sustainable 21st century,” Suzuki said.
“We think that lifestyle change is also crucial to change energy policy.”
For now the group is stowing away money in its clean energy piggy bank and keeping its fingers crossed that it can receive a subsidy from the government that would cover roughly half of the windmill’s construction costs. It will apply for the money in July and know the results by November, Suzuki said.
But wind-power advocates — private companies, Sakagawa and green fund participants — agree that national power monopolies are the biggest bottleneck to wind power. For now, Hokkaido Electric Power has placed a cap of 150 mw on power purchases from windmills, roughly 3 percent of the prefecture’s energy demand.
Company officials say the ceiling, which will be reviewed next fiscal year, is in place to maintain electricity quality.
But critics say the cap is holding supply down to below a third of what it might be.
“There has been no numerical data presented showing wind power will reduce the quality of energy. I think this is more of a preconception,” Tomen’s Akira Otani said.
“What we would like to see is a feed-in system with rules — something that outlines specific conditions under which they (utilities) will buy our power. This would give the private sector a goal, something to shoot for. There would be the incentive of profit, and I think you would see (windmill) technology develop and spread faster.”