Japan starts up offshore wind farm near Fukushima nuke plant

143 turbines signal renewed energy supply to decimated region.

ONAHAMA PORT, Japan – Japan switched on the first turbine at a wind farm 20 kilometres (12 miles) off the coast of Fukushima on Nov. 11, feeding electricity to the grid tethered to the tsunami-crippled nuclear plant onshore.

The wind farm near the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant is to eventually have a generation capacity of 1 gigawatt from 143 turbines, though its significance is not limited to the energy it will produce. Symbolically, the turbines will help restore the role of energy supplier to a region decimated by a population exodus following the multiple meltdowns triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The project also highlights Japan’s aspirations to sell its advanced energy technology around the globe.

Trading houses such as Marubeni Corp., which is leading the consortium building the offshore wind farm, are investing aggressively in renewable energy as well as conventional sources, helped by government policies aimed at nurturing favoured industries.

All of Japan’s 50 viable nuclear reactors are offline for safety checks under new regulatory guidelines drawn up after the Fukushima disaster. Utility companies have applied to restart at least 14 reactors under those new guidelines, which include more stringent requirements for earthquake and tsunami protections, among other precautions.

In Japan, the push to tap more renewable sources to help offset lost power capacity, and reduce costs for imported natural gas and oil, also got a boost last year with the implementation of a higher wholesale tariff for energy generated from non-conventional sources.

Japan, whose coast is mostly ringed by deep waters, is pioneering floating wind turbine construction, required for seabed depths greater than 50 metres (165 feet). The 2 megawatt downwind floating turbine was built at a dry dock near Tokyo and towed to its location off the northeastern coast. Six huge chains anchor it to the seabed 120 metres (almost 400 feet) below.

The turbine is linked to a 66 kilovolt floating power substation, the world’s first according to the project operators, via an extra-high voltage undersea cable.

However, most leading members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the powerful business lobbies such as Keidanren, and many experts, argue that wind and other renewables alone simply cannot make up for the steady and huge baseload power produced by nuclear plants.

“I favour renewables. But it would be irresponsible to create a pie-in-the-sky claim that renewables alone are the answer,” said Paul Scalise, a fellow at Tokyo University and expert on Japan’s energy industry. “There is no such thing as a perfect power source.”

He cites figures showing wind power’s average generating capacity at 2 watts per square meter versus 20 watts per square meter for solar power – and 1,000 watts per square meter for nuclear.

Eventually there could be dozens of wind turbines off Fukushima’s scenic but deserted coast. The project is meant to demonstrate the feasibility of locating these towering turbines in offshore regions where the winds are more reliable and there are fewer “not in my backyard” concerns. Bigger turbines that might create noise problems onshore are not an issue so far offshore.