One day, resource-deprived Japan may no longer have to import its energy, nor rely on nuclear power or coal, thanks to a renewable source with vast potential: offshore wind power.
The International Energy Agency said in a report in November that by 2040, offshore wind power alone has the potential to meet Japan’s total power demand by over ninefold and the world’s total electricity demand by elevenfold. The technology could become the world’s mainstay power supply, the IEA says, contingent on one thing: the further development of floating turbines.
2020 will be an inflection point in the nation’s full-scale development of offshore wind after a new law took effect in April 2019 allowing offshore turbines to operate for up to 30 years. Previously, most prefectures could only give permits lasting up to five years, making it difficult for developers to invest in major projects.
The law also designated 11 sites for offshore wind power and the government is expected to hold public tenders as early as this spring for four areas off of Akita, Chiba and Nagasaki prefectures.
Japan is jockeying to join the new growth market and follow the success of its neighbors, despite the prevalence of water depths of more than 60 meters surrounding the country — conditions ill-suited for fixed-bottom wind turbines. Development of offshore wind has been accelerating in China and Taiwan, which are known for having an abundance of shallow coastal waters.
Japan’s need for renewable sources is only growing given international criticism of its use of coal in the post-Fukushima world. Solar power capacity expansion accounted for the vast majority of renewable power supplies following the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear crisis in 2011— but there have been signs of slowing investments hampered by a substantial decline in the feed-in-tariff price and a lack of connected grid capacity.
In contrast, there’s ample room to expand offshore wind and a total of 13 gigawatts worth of projects are in the pipeline, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Those projects are undergoing environmental assessments, which may take up to five years, but they could be up and running by 2030 given a construction period of two years, said Yoshinori Ueda, a Japan Wind Energy Association board member.
The association estimates that 10 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity will be installed by 2030, the equivalent of about 10 nuclear reactors, which would create direct investments of ¥5 trillion to ¥6 trillion, generate 80,000 to 90,000 new jobs and curb total carbon dioxide emissions by 71 million tons.
The potential is huge as Japan has one of the world’s 10 largest exclusive economic zones. Still, the government needs to take a more proactive approach, industry sources say, as private companies face a heavy burden, including securing local consent for offshore wind projects and conducting environmental assessments, in stark contrast to firms in Europe, where offshore wind power was pioneered.
“Taiwan decided to work on offshore wind after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and quickly surpassed Japan,” Ueda said. “Japan is slow. No other country spends as long as five years on environmental assessments. We are requesting that the government take a central role for spearheading offshore wind like in Europe, so that the private companies would only need to build turbines.”
Offshore wind power capacity in the European Union has grown to around 20 gigawatts so far, helped by strong winds and shallow waters in the North Sea. But China has been emerging as a key player after installing more offshore wind capacity than any other country for the first time in 2018, adding 1.6 gigawatts, followed by Britain and Germany, according to the IEA.
For waters deeper than 60 meters, floating wind turbines are the optimal choice. But they are still not economically feasible and there are only a limited number of projects that operate them commercially worldwide, including some in Japan, according to industry sources. As a result, installations of floating wind turbines are unlikely to become more widespread until after 2030, Mizuho Bank’s research showed.
Japan currently operates offshore wind power plants with a total capacity of only around 64 megawatts, including about 5 megawatts for floating turbines, and no large-scale commercial wind farms have begun commercial operations so far.
Though some European countries have installed turbines in their exclusive economic zones, Japan has not yet enacted a law to make that possible.
The Japan Wind Power Association says the nation has the potential to set up 91 gigawatts of fixed-bottom turbines alone in the general waters of its coasts. But if cost-competitive floating turbines were developed, the opportunities would be “unlimited” if they were deployed further out to sea, Ueda said.
Global grid-connected offshore wind capacity additions grew 15 percent to nearly 4.5 gigawatts in 2018 from the year before, but offshore wind annual capacity additions needs to more than quadruple by 2030 to get on track with the sustainable development goals under the Paris Agreement, according to the IEA.
Going forward, offshore wind capacity may jump fifteenfold and attract $1 trillion of cumulative investments by 2040, the IEA added.
Several private firms have been eyeing a slice of the nascent industry. Companies like Sumitomo Corp., Japan Renewable Energy Corp. and Japan Wind Developments Co. are planning to build a total of more than 1 gigawatt of offshore wind turbines in Akita Prefecture alone.
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. has unveiled plans to build a 370-megawatt offshore wind farm in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, while construction firm Toda Corp. has been eyeing a floating wind farm in Nagasaki Prefecture.
Jera Co., a fuel venture between Tepco and Chubu Electric Power Co., is one of the most active players. It is considering a bid for the rights to set up several hundred megawatts worth of fixed-bottom turbines in Japan, taking advantage of its experience overseas, Ken Matsuda, the general manager of the company’s renewable energy development group, said in an interview.
In 2018, Jera acquired a stake in the operations of the Gunfleet Sands Offshore Wind project in Britain, which has a 173-megawatt capacity. It has also invested in the Formosa 1 and Formosa 2 projects in Taiwan, with a total capacity of more than 500 megawatts when completed, and is in discussions to take a substantial stake in the 2-gigawatt Formosa 3 project.
In total, Jera’s equity in offshore wind power capacity in Taiwan alone is set to exceed 1 gigawatt. With its parent firms owning roughly half of Japan’s thermal power plants, Jera is accelerating its green shift and aims to raise the renewable power capacity to 5 gigawatts by fiscal 2025 from about 1.1 gigawatts now.
Jera President Satoshi Onoda said the company is considering bidding on multiple projects expected to be up for a tender this year but added that optimum sites for installing offshore wind turbines are limited in Japan compared with Taiwan.
“The competition is tough because there are many competitors out there,” he said. “If possible, we would like to take a leading position of fixed-bottom offshore wind projects in Japan.”