European companies are playing substantial roles in the Japanese renewable energy market, offering innovative solutions in wind and solar power, geothermal and biomass-driven energy.
Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has not set a specific target for renewable energy since coming to power at the end of 2012, European firms are among those players hoping the administration will follow-through on campaign pledges that 30% of all Japanese energy be provided by renewable sources by 2030.
“Why wind?” asks Kenichi Fujita, senior executive operating officer, energy section, at Siemens Japan. “Because, among renewable energies, there are a number of alternatives, but wind is a proven technology in power generation cost[-effectiveness] and capacity,” he says.
Siemens supplies and operates over 100 wind turbines in Japan, including 17, 3-megawatt turbines for a project announced last August at Akita Port, on Japan’s north-west coast.
These turbines each have 50% more power-generation capacity than the 2-megawatt model currently the standard in Japan. They take advantage of a cutting-edge gearless direct-drive technology developed by Siemens. That means fewer maintenance needs, based on a lower number of components and, given its lighter weight, easier transport up Japan’s notoriously steep and winding mountain roads.
Unlike high-capacity Japanese turbines for offshore use that are still being tested, Siemens’ 6-megawatt turbine is ready for commercial use, underlying the potential of the offshore wind market.
“If you want to hold a certain presence in the Japanese renewable energy power-generation market, then you must be involved in offshore wind,” says Fujita.
Norway is a major producer of solar-grade silicon that is a component of solar panels — ironic, given that the Scandinavian country is normally associated with short summers and winter sports. Norway’s Elkem, in fact, is an industry leader. Compared with conventional silicon, Elkem’s solar-grade silicon boasts one-quarter less energy consumption and, as a result, carbon dioxide emission is also one-quarter to one-tenth lower.
Elkem recently obtained an official Carbon Footprint in Japan, a first for solar-grade silicon, according to Elkem Japan president, Hiroyuki Date. The company has formed a joint venture with Tobata Kounyu, a Kitakyushu-based cargo handling and warehouse management firm. The combined firm, Elkem-Tobata Renewable Energy, will promote solar modules using developed silicon in the Kyushu area.
Using local engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors, Elkem-Tobata has already installed nearly 3,000 kilowatts of solar power systems on the roofs of Tobata’s warehouses, and hopes to persuade other warehouse owners to install environmentally beneficial solar modules.
Another company, Showa Shell Sekiyu, aims to contribute to Japan’s eco-friendly future not only by building a biomass-driven power station, but also by recycling existing facilities to do so.
In 2011, the company, which is part-owned by Royal Dutch Shell, phased out an oil refinery processing 120,000 barrels a day in Kawasaki city — amid declining demand for petroleum products. There were redundant facilities — such as a wharf capable of docking massive ships, a yard, warehouses — and staff. “We decided at an early stage to close the refinery and make maximum use of existing facilities,” said Minoru Yagyuda, general manager at Showa Shell Sekiyu’s power business division.
Show Shell Sekiyu also invested ¥160 billion (approximately $1.6 billion) to build the biomass power plant in Kawasaki city. Construction began on the 49-megawatt plant in April, and it is expected to start commercial operations at the end of next year.
“We are making the shift from petroleum, and are looking to become a company that supplies the type of energy that society needs,” says Yagyuda.
It is not surprising that two of the world’s most prominent volcanic nations, Japan and Iceland, should trade know-how on harnessing geothermal energy.
Bolli Thoroddsen, chairman of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce in Japan, is also director of Takanawa Partners, a company seeking to introduce Icelandic expertise to companies and into regions of Japan looking to exploit their geothermal power resources.
At least 20 new geothermal projects are underway in Japan, mainly in Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kyushu. But not everyone is happy about attempts to develop Japan’s most indigenous source of renewable energy; some worry that large, geothermal plants could upset natural surroundings.
However, Iceland is a good example of how nature and geothermal energy production can co-exist. The country has allowed for the construction of a large facility right next to a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Thingvellir and Iceland’s Blue Lagoon — Europe’s most popular hot spring. The spa remains popular, despite the geothermal facility next door.
Nonetheless, Japan remains reluctant to sanction geothermal exploration in its national parks, and many Japanese onsen owners also tend to see geothermal power as a threat.
“It is true that the onsen owners are very powerful,” Thoroddsen says. “But, my stance is that Japan must make the onsen owners stakeholders in geothermal power plants. That is the only way to get them on board, and move things forward.”
Thoroddsen himself is involved in negotiations with a municipality in Gunma prefecture to introduce a 2-megawatt geothermal-driven power plant.
“Geothermal energy is a stable, clean and economically viable energy source, so Japan must utilise it in a full, forceful manner,” he says.© Japan Today