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Nuclear Woes Boost Japanese Wind but Supply Remains Limited

Japan's severe nuclear crisis is pushing wind power to the forefront as a safer and more reliable alternative to meet the country's future energy requirements, according to industry observers.

According to a Tokyo-based industry observer, Japan's government, electricity sector and heavy industries have traditionally favored nuclear power over renewables but given the existing nuclear chaos, "some of them are now telling me that wind will become the next great renewables alternative and that Japan's energy map is going to be re-arranged."

Because 80% of Japan's wind infrastructure survived last month's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, industry participants expect the government will step up future incentives to develop the sector, which has so far received little support.

Stefan Gsänger, Secretary General of the World Wind Energy Association, agrees. "Given the wind industry's proven reliability, we are hoping the government is going to increase its support for the technology, in addition to other renewables such as solar and bionergy," which are much safer for the population, he says.

In a statement released after the accident, Japan's Wind Power Association announced most of the country's wind farms survived the disaster, thanks to efficient anti-seismic technology. It boasted that the Kamisu offshore wind farm, located 300 kilometers from the quake's epicenter - became the world's first wind farm to survive a 5-meter tsunami.

Power transmission lines and other infrastructure were damaged, however, preventing some of the wind turbines' energy from reaching the grid. How much of this energy was actually lost is unclear as exact statistics cannot be procured.

Limiting Supply

Japan's Wind Power and Wind Energy associations unfortunately were unreachable for comment and government officials also would not return phone calls.

It is certain, however, that a small portion of Japan's 2.3 GW of installed wind capacity is not reaching the grid. While this may not be linked to the disaster, it is happening in some areas, notably in the capital Tokyo.

According to Chuichi Arakawa, a Tokyo University professor and WWEA Japan representative, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is limiting generation from renewable plants (including wind) to 5% of their installed capacity. This is because it continues to struggle to safely manage the network following the Fukushima Daiichi plant leak, billed as the world's largest nuclear disaster in 25 years.

In Northern Japan, a similar scenario is in the works with the Hokkaido Electric Company also capping wind farm contributions to 5% of their capacity. In addition, Arakawa acknowledged that "small [wind farms] across the country are disconnected" and that these are unlikely to rejoin the electricity network until the nuclear crisis is stabilized.

Quakeproof Towers

Due to the constant danger of earthquakes in Japan, the country has a very strict anti-quake regulatory system that governs all buildings and infrastructure including the wind sector.

All towers measuring over 30m must be equipped with quakeproof technology. Turbines must also be able to survive major winds such as those stemming from a typhoon.

"Anti-earthquake technology is a major priority in Japan and local manufacturers are well versed in it," Gsanger adds. The industry's survival against one of the worst natural disasters on record highlights its strong safety profile.

"The risk of a wind turbine hurting someone is very low," Gsanger continues. "The worse that can happen is that the turbine falls down and if you are very unlucky it hits someone.” But this is unlikely to happen, as wind towers are usually located 500-1,000m away from residential areas, decreasing the likelihood that they would injure someone if they became unstable or the blades detached.

In the wake of the tragedy, China is also looking for ways to modernize its wind technology by boosting its ability to survive natural disasters. Work is now underway to develop new anti-quake and -hurricane/typhoon devices.

In part because of Kamisu's survival, the government is also expected to support offshore wind's development, says the Tokyo observer, adding that this is crucial as good onshore locations are quickly becoming unavailable.

"There aren't too many areas with strong winds on the plains so most [wind] farms are installed on mountains," he notes. However, there aren't too many good spaces left there either. "Many remaining mountains are too steep to build adequate road connections and transmission infrastructure," the observer adds.

Other factors also threaten to stifle wind power development. According to Arakawa, the quake is unlikely to delay future wind projects. However, a newly proposed law that asks developers to carry out broader environmental impact assessments could delay future projects depending on its severity, he says. Moreover, there is lingering uncertainty about whether the new Feed-in tariff for wind-power will be approved next year. 

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