Editorials

Winds of energy independence

Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s continued push to sell nuclear technology abroad and restart nuclear power plants at home, the Ministry of the Environment together with several leading companies and universities has been quietly developing Japan’s capacity for wind power.

The first deep-water offshore wind turbine started generating power last month off the Goto Islands, Nagasaki Prefecture, and another floating turbine off the coast of Fukushima is set to start operations later this month. Each turbine has an output of 2,000 kilowatts.

That is a good start to a new and better energy policy that deserves to be expanded. It will be expanded as other offshore wind projects move into development. These initiatives, tentative as they may be, are important steps toward improving Japan’s energy condition and recover from the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Wind power should become a top priority for Japan.

While many renewable sources of energy have been explored in Japan, and should continue to be, what is unique with the offshore wind power turbines is the potential for expansion with few negative environmental consequences. Unlike traditional wind turbines, which must be located in shallow waters because they are anchored to the seabed, floating stations can be placed in much deeper waters so the potential locations for offshore wind farms are far more numerous.

The potential of offshore wind is huge, since Japan has one of the longest coastlines of any country in the world, ranking variously from fifth to 10th, depending on how coastlines are scientifically measured. In the ocean, winds are strong and stable, and there are no nearby residents for the turbines to bother.

The Environment Ministry estimates that wind energy could amount to 1.6 billion kilowatts, nearly eight times the current capacity of Japan’s power companies. That makes sense to corporations such as Marubeni, Toda, Fuji Heavy Metal and Hitachi, which have been working with researchers at Kyoto University and Kyushu University to develop materials, designs and implementation.

The degree of cooperation between all the participants also makes the future of wind power promising.

Though initial construction costs for the turbines, cables, platforms and equipment are high, they are no more so than for a nuclear power plant. Concerns about the impact of offshore wind turbines on ecosystems are also important to consider. However, flotation devices have been designed to minimize interference with the environment, and companies are working together with fishing cooperatives.

Materials must also be made light and strong and the problems of undersea cables and maintenance on offshore platforms are being solved quickly. Fresh designs, such as the wind lens, developed at Kyushu University, are ensuring that turbine shapes funnel wind efficiently.

Japanese engineers have also moved ahead in many aspects of production and installation, solving problems related to such issues as the steel chains anchoring platforms to the seabed, turbine parts and other essential electronic and material components.

Japan seems to be seizing the initiative here, rousing itself from the innovation slumber that seemed to grip the nation as a result of the economic downturn and the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns. Japanese technology has a chance here to focus on producing a new industry that is safe, cutting edge and future-minded.

Though most of the world’s floating wind power structures — 60 percent — are located in Europe, 23 percent are now in Japan. The new installations in Fukushima will generate enough electricity to power 1,700 homes at first. That may seem modest, but the added 140 working turbines planned by 2020 will increase that number considerably. Japan gets only a fraction of its energy from renewable sources at present, but wind power’s potential has become clearly evident.

Japan’s solar power industry should not be disregarded. Being particularly suitable for home and urban applications, solar energy will continue to fill different needs. But wind power far has more power-generating potential for Japan. According to the Environment Ministry, the amount of offshore wind energy that can be potentially generated is 10 times that of solar power.

As always, naysayers will contend that wind power is not realistic; however, imagining nuclear power plants will function safely is a more unrealistic point of view. Wind power has the huge advantage of providing Japan with a greater degree of energy independence, one that doesn’t depend on potentially dangerous technology or expensive imports. After the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, the jump in oil and gas imports reminded the country how important domestic innovation connects to energy independence.

Offshore wind power should become a larger part of the short- and long-term goals of the country’s energy policy. The government budget supporting wind power initiatives should be considered a practical and sensible investment in the future, and wisely expanded.

The ministries, universities and companies should continue to work together on wind power, as productive cooperation has long been considered one of Japan’s central virtues.

If wind power continues to develop, maybe one day Fukushima, where the turbines start up later this month, may be better remembered as the site of the first viable wind farm instead of as the symbol of Japan’s misguided energy policies of the past.