A Quiet Storm is Brewing in Japan’s Offshore Wind Market

A Quiet Storm is Brewing in Japan’s Offshore Wind Market

The concrete achievements of the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow were few and limited in scope, but the shift to renewable energy looks unstoppable. And wind power will be a crucial part of the new decarbonised energy systems.   

While hydropower remains the biggest source of renewable energy globally by a significant margin, wind is the fastest growing power source, and now accounts for around 6% of all electricity generation, according to the International Energy Agency. Although wind power is expanding rapidly and has the potential for much more growth, a number of challenges remain.

Just the question of where to place turbines can lead to political, logistical and technical issues. Offshore turbines tend to attract less opposition from the public than their onshore counterparts, though fishing industry pushback does occur in some cases.  

Tackling Major Technological and Logistical Challenges

Then there are the technical factors that impact all turbines.  Wind that passes through a turbine creates a wake and turbulence that can reduce power generation by up to 40% for turbines downstream, making correct positioning in a wind farm vital.

The fundamental design of turbines, essentially based on the windmill, has stayed largely unaltered since they first emerged in the late 19th century. The most obvious change in recent decades has been the increase in the size of blades – and therefore generating capacity – with average rotor diameters in Europe already over 150 metres and rising, according to the EU’s Wind Energy Technology Development Report 2020.    

Accompanying the growth in size have been innovations such as far lighter blades, faster tip speeds that reduce torque and reduce drivetrain weight, and new shapes that cut noise.

Logistical problems created by these ever larger turbines include how to transport them by road, and out of ports for offshore projects.   

So much coastline, so little power

In Japan, many ports are not open to ships large enough to carry offshore wind turbines and some maritime routes that aren’t open to foreign vessels, placing restrictions on companies operating in the sector.

Reinforcement construction is underway at the ports of Akita, Noshiro, Kashima and Kitakyushu to give them the capacity necessary for the installation and maintenance of offshore wind turbines

Despite having nearly 30,000 kilometres of coastline and an estimated 1,600 GW of offshore generating capacity wind power accounted for less than 1% of electricity generated in Japan in 2020.

Although there is some danger from natural disasters in the most seismically active nation on earth, the biggest barriers until recently have been regulatory. Indeed, the Kamisu near-shore wind farm off Ibaraki survived the giant earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 and was back online three days later.  

The 2019 law on offshore wind power generation addressed many of the legal issues and companies have been rushing to take advantage. There are now 69 offshore projects in Japan at various stages of development, with a total potential generation capacity of nearly 38 GW. But only a handful of these have reached the construction phase and none are yet online.

“The legal framework for funding was not possible until the 2019 law was passed that allowed the granting of operation licenses for 20 years, which is the minimum timeline for projects to be economically viable,” says the head of APAC operations at a European renewable energy specialist.

“Issues with grid connection and reaching agreements with local fishermen are being left to the developers by the government, which also causes delays,” he explains. 

And despite a comparative lack of domestic expertise, the government has “made it clear that Japanese developers will take the lead role, though we hope they will be as open as possible to using the experience of companies from abroad,” he adds.

Getting together

A number of overseas firms in the sector have taken the joint venture route in Japan, with more likely to join as the market expands.

At the start of the year, Danish turbine manufacturer Vestas and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries launched MHI Vestas Japan, a joint venture targeting the domestic onshore and offshore wind power markets. Then in September, Scottish utility SSE announced it would pay 23 billion yen ($208 million) for an 80% stake in a joint venture with Japanese renewables firm Pacifico Energy.

Meanwhile, two other cross-border joint ventures launched this summer are looking into floating offshore wind projects. Germany’s RWE Renewables has partnered with Kansai Electric Power, and Norway’s BW Ideol signed a joint development agreement with ENEOS Corporation.

Floating wind farms have a number of advantages over fixed turbines. They can be assembled onshore and towed out, making installation easier, as well as being able to operate further from shore, where winds are usually stronger. Being further out to sea also helps eliminate the problem of picturesque coastlines being blighted by rows of turbines. Because the seas around Japan become deep relatively close to shore, floating turbines are particularly advantageous in its waters.

And for when Japan’s seas do blow up a storm – the country is already struck by more than 25 typhoons and tropical storms a year, a number likely to rise due to climate change – a local start-up Challenergy has come up with one answer.

Its Magnus Vertical Axis Wind Turbine uses square upright blades in a sturdy structure that can keep generating power even during a full-blown typhoon, when regular turbines have to shut down.  

With the government setting targets of 10GW in offshore power by 2030 and 30-45GW by 2040, the rising pressure to decarbonise, and ongoing tech advances, the sector appears to be on the cusp of explosive growth.

By: Gavin Blair

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