TOMAMAE, Hokkaido – This windy fishing town that once boasted a thriving herring industry, is again drawing national attention, this time as a showcase for Japan’s burgeoning windmill power-generation industry.
This summer, the town with a population of 4,500 was full of life, as hundreds of people, many from electric power companies, trading firms, environmental organizations and municipalities, visited a site dotted with 20 huge windmills.
The town’s only hotel, Tomamae Hot Spring Fuwatto, had more than 23,000 guests in the first three months of business since May.
The 300-hectare farm hosting the site, Tomamae Green Hill Wind Park, houses a 20,000-kw windmill power station built last October by Tomen Corp., an Osaka-based trading house.
Toshio Mori, Tomamae’s deputy mayor, said the town’s power output will increase to 36,000 kw by the end of the year when 19 windmills being built in the town by the Electric Power Development Co. begin operating.
Tomen first began its windmill power-generation operations in the U.S. in 1987. Today the company is the world’s industry leader, operating 19 stations with a combined output capacity of 650,000 kw in Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the U.S. and Japan.
Tomamae’s wind park is the first windmill power plant Tomen has built in Japan. The company now plans to build two more stations, each with a capacity of over 30,000 kw, on the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture and in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.
Kiyoshi Haraikawa, manager of Tomen’s power business division, said the company plans to boost its power output in Japan to 300,000 kw within the next few years.
Prompted by Tomen’s initiative, more players are preparing to jump on the bandwagon. Itochu Corp. has tied up with NKK Corp. to build a 21,000-kw windmill power station in Horonobe, 100 km north of Tomamae.
Marubeni Corp. plans to launch a similar project either in Wakkanai at the northern tip of Hokkaido or Kagoshima.
Toshiaki Yasuda, deputy manager of the planning department of Hokkaido Electric Power Co., said windmill power is becoming profitable as production costs fall.
In a public tender invited last year by the utility for a windmill power plant project in Hokkaido, the lowest bidder offered to sell electricity for just over 8 yen per kw, considerably cheaper than the 11.6 yen offered in the previous tender.
Tomen’s Haraikawa said the cost of building a windmill power station has halved since several years ago.
“This is an encouraging sign,” Haraikawa said, though he added the cost is still roughly double that in other industrialized countries.
Tomen aims to generate 48 million kwh of electricity worldwide with gross sales of 560 million yen in the current business year, ending next March. Yet much of the plan’s success depends on the strength of the wind.
Akira Tani, chief of Tomen’s wind park, said his biggest headache is the wide gap in wind strength between summer and winter. He said the park operates at less than 5 percent capacity in summer, compared with an average of 40 percent in winter.
Profits kick in from 20 percent, according to Tani.
Mitsui & Co. and Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co. said a projected inability to cover costs was the reason for their decision to scrap a planned windmill power project in Wakkanai.
In Japan, one-third of the cost needed to build a windmill power plant is subsidized by the government’s New Energy Development Corp.
While similar projects in the U.S. and Europe are backed by tax incentives as well as subsidies, no such tax breaks are offered in Japan.
The Hokkaido Prefectural Government has hailed Tomen’s project at Tomamae as a model case in which a desolate municipality with a dwindling population can revive itself by developing a new industry.
The project has already led to the creation of related industries in Hokkaido, including companies that manufacture the windmills.
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