IN DEPTH: The lessons of Kabashima

The sleepy Goto Islands are a world away from the anonymous hustle and bustle of the congested streets of Tokyo.

Yet like Fukushima, this remote, rocky archipelago, about 100km off the western coast, sits at the forefront of Japan’s burgeoning renewables revolution. In October 2013, under the oversight of the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), a group of companies and research entities connected a floating 2MW Hitachi turbine to the local grid on tiny Kabashima, one of the 140 islands that make up the Goto archipelago, replacing a 100kW Fuji Heavy Industries turbine installed a year earlier.

However, the MOE project has a decidedly different set of objectives from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s (METI) initiative in Fukushima. “We’re funding it to improve and mature the technology of floating offshore wind turbines,” says Satoshi Yoshida, deputy director of the MOE’s climate change policy division. “That’s our purpose.”

It is a less ambitious project than the METI undertaking in Fukushima, with the MOE spending ¥6bn ($57.1m) compared to the METI’s ¥22bn on Fukushima Forward’s first phase and ¥31bn on the second. Unlike Fukushima, there will be no testing of floating substations (because an onshore facility already exists on Kabashima, according to Yoshida) and there are no firm plans for a wind farm in the area, with the single-turbine demonstration project due to end in 2015.

Yet despite its limited ambition, the Kabashima project is nonetheless contributing to the accumulation of offshore expertise in ways that Fukushima Forward will probably fail to adequately address.

In particular, the MOE is using Kabashima to clarify the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process for offshore wind farms.

Japanese industry officials frequently blame lengthy EIAs for holding back the rapid development of onshore wind farms. They typically take several years and, according to Japanese wind developer Eurus Energy, can cost as much as ¥100m.

“But we still don’t have an EIA for floating offshore wind power in Japan,” Yoshida says, explaining that Goto will provide a model for the private sector, so companies can expedite the EIA process in the future.

Project participant Fuyo Ocean Development & Engineering is leading the EIA process by studying the impact of the turbine on water quality, as well as issues such as low-frequency sound. It is monitoring bird species within 3km, and marine mammals — primarily Risso’s dolphins — within 6km.

The MOE project also provides a counterbalance to Fukushima because the waters off Kabashima are ideal for studying the impact of strong winds on floating turbines.

The typhoons that sweep across the Goto archipelago every year are “much more severe than in Fukushima”, acknowledges Takeshi Ishihara, the University of Tokyo professor and “godfather” of the Fukushima project, who is one of 12 special advisers on the Kabashima project.

Typhoon Sanba — one of the biggest tropical cyclones to hit Japan in the postwar era — ripped across the archipelago in September 2012, causing extensive damage.

Fuji Heavy’s turbine, installed in the project’s first phase, bore the brunt of this storm and emerged relatively unscathed.

Sanba provided a wealth of invaluable information, as the turbine was the first in the world to take a direct hit from a storm of such size, according to the MOE.

The project is also creating employment opportunities — a key to success in economically depressed, small-town Japan. “We can actually build the floating turbine [components] anywhere, so this will provide local jobs. Most jobs will come from building the turbines, but some will also be maintenance-related,” Yoshida says, noting that the spar foundation was built by Toda Construction in the nearby city of Kitakyushu while the nacelle was assembled in Ibaraki prefecture, near Tokyo.

After the Kabashima demonstration ends in 2015, it will be up to participants such as Toda and Hitachi to decide if they want to build a wind farm in the region — without the MOE’s involvement.

Toda, for its part, tells Recharge that it would like to commercialise its hybrid spar structure and develop a floating offshore farm as quickly as possible, but it is revealing little about specific plans.

“I’d like to introduce this [technology] to many small islands throughout Southeast Asia, and not just for commercial [purposes],” says Tadashi Nishimura, general manager of Toda’s civil engineering division. “In a few years, maybe JICA [the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which provides overseas aid] can bring this technology to developing countries.”

The project has also been much more successful in bringing local fishing co-operatives on board than Fukushima has. “The fishermen here understand the importance of the project. They want renewable energy — that’s one difference from Fukushima,” Yoshida says.

Professor Kimiaki Yasuda, a specialist in stakeholder management issues at Nagoya University, says that some fisheries groups in Fukushima have responded in a “negative” manner because the consortium there failed to engage them from the project’s inception.

“[But in Goto], from the concept stage the project was discussed with the fishermen’s union, which is why they have a positive impression of it,” Yasuda explains, adding that “early communication” and MOE’s promise to remove the turbine once the demonstration project is finished have been key to securing local co-operation.

The Goto fishing co-operatives have agreed not to fish within a 450-square-metre area around the turbine, while Fuyo Ocean Development & Engineering continues to monitor the project’s impact on seaweed, shellfish and the topography of the seabed. 

The MOE group has also succeeded in bringing the local community on board. Despite the deep-rooted public distrust of nuclear energy in post-Fukushima Japan, renewables can still be a tough sell to a general populace deeply resistant to change. This is particularly true in conservative, isolated towns, where there is a high proportion of older people.

Of course, a lingering degree of scepticism and disinterest is evident on the quiet streets and small eateries around the harbour of Goto-shi, the archipelago’s largest community.

“I don’t care about turbines,” grumbles one man over a glass of shochu and a serving of freshly grilled barracuda, turning back to a sumo match on the TV.

But Kazuyo Kawahara, the elderly proprietor of the Kaba Café — a charming eatery tucked away in the rustic back alleys of sleepy Ifuki-cho, the main fishing port on Kabashima — attributes this to a lack of familiarity with the objectives of the project and the technologies involved. She notes that Kabashima’s 150-odd inhabitants were initially wary when the consortium first suggested installing the turbine in local waters.

“Of course, we were concerned before they built it,” she says. “But now we’re hopeful and waiting to see the long-term, future potential of wind.”