Wind Power Generation Facing Crisis in Japan

The future of wind power generation in Japan may be left twisting in the breeze as the environmentally friendly system of electrical generation faces increasing economic obstacles.

(condensed from the Yomiuri Shimbun) Japanese electric-power companies have begun setting upper limits on their purchase of electric power generated by wind. Operators of commercial wind-power generators are warning that the system will lose profitability, a major obstacle for the proliferation of wind-power systems. Formerly, there was an established system in Japan under which electricity generated by wind-power plants was purchased at favorable prices by major regional electric power companies. The situation has been drastically changing because the number of wind-power generators has increased, and major electric power companies have been reluctant to buy electric power from them. Tomamae Windvilla Power Plant, a wind-power plant established by Electric Power Development, the municipal government and others, operates in Tomamaecho, northern Hokkaido. Utilizing strong winds blowing in from the Sea of Japan all year around, the plant operates 19 93-m windmills that generate 59 million kWh a year, equivalent to electricity consumption for 17,000 households. It had planned to sell all of its power to Hokkaido Electric Power. However, major electric power companies have had difficulty purchasing all of the electric power from such wind-powered plants, because the number of similar facilities has drastically increased in many parts of the nation. In addition, the major electric power companies have expressed their wish to lower the price they pay for electricity generated by wind-power plants, which had been set at about 11.60 yen per kWh, saying the costs of wind power generation have fallen significantly. As a result, major electric-power companies have introduced an open bidding system to purchase electric power generated by wind-power plants. They have set a purchase quota on electricity from wind-power plants aimed at lowering purchase prices. Hokkaido Electric Power employs a bidding system for large-sized wind-power plants in which it buys electric power at lower prices first. Tohoku Electric Power and Shikoku Electric Power have also announced their intention to introduce bidding systems from this spring. The Hokkaido and Tohoku power companies have revised their purchasing systems, which previously had no limit on purchases of power from wind-power plants, setting upper limits at 150,000 and 300,000 kilowatts a year, respectively. Under the new bidding systems, wind-power plants have had to compete to cut costs and lower their prices to ensure that major electric power companies will buy electricity from them. In some cases wind power plants may become unprofitable and could be forced to close down. Electric power generation has put a heavy burden on the environment. Though hydraulic power generation looks nature-friendly, it requires the construction of huge dams that can cause massive damage to the environment. Thermal power generation–in which coal, oil and natural gas is burned–discharges a large quantity of carbon dioxide and other gases that have been a major cause of global warming. Though nuclear power generation does not emit greenhouse gases, there is always the danger of accidents, as witnessed in the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union. Atomic power generation has been the prime target of environmental activists. On the other hand, solar and wind power generation systems utilize natural energy efficiently and do not discharge pollutants harmful to the environment. These systems often have been seen as a symbol of environmental protection. Compared with other countries, Japan’s wind power output of 100,000 kilowatts a year is still very low. In contrast, Germany, which is making a nationwide effort to promote wind power generation, produced 4.44 million kilowatts from wind power plants in 1999. Japanese operators of wind-power plants have complained about the government’s attitude. Though the government offers large subsidies to nuclear power plants, it shows less understanding of wind-power generation. Plant operators say Japan should raise the target of wind power generation to a much higher level and make efforts to enlarge the system. But the reality is that public assistance for wind power generation is not enough. Those concerned are now warning that Japan’s wind power generation system, which was on track toward full development, may be derailed in the near future.

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