Floating wind can inspire Japan

Japan is one of the most exciting energy markets in the world today. The closure of all its nuclear reactors is a challenge that requires an effort out of the ordinary, and new renewables technology needs to play a large part in the solution.

As a novice to Japanese films, I recently stumbled across one of the most inspiring movies I have seen, an animated masterpiece called The Wind Rises. Based on a true story from prewar times, it tells of a young Japanese engineer and his dream of building aeroplanes. In his daydreams he meets the pioneering Italian aeronautics engineer Giovanni Caproni, who makes a short but powerful statement: “Inspiration unlocks the future — technology will catch up.”

The phrase stuck in my mind, and although I realise it is probably timeless, it feels more relevant today than ever. Inspiration is what makes us fantasise, brings out our creativity and allows us to imagine what our future could look like.

In times like these, the renewables industry needs not only to demonstrate what it has already achieved, but also what the future would look like if it were up to us. As much as we have to deliver on the numbers, we also need to speak to people’s hearts.

Several factors are coinciding to fuel the development of floating wind turbine technology in Japan. Apart from the current energy deficit, the country has strong steel production capabilities, significant yard capacity and an amazing record in manufacturing and mass production.

A need for jobs — not least for the fishermen who lost their boats in the 2011 tsunami or who are unable to fish due to contamination from the Fukushima nuclear plant — should also drive this industry forward.

There is a concern, though, that political demands to develop as much as possible domestically and with local know-how will delay progress and drive up costs. The delicate balance between risk and cost has to be managed carefully: accidents, serious failures or simply too-high costs could undermine confidence in floating wind as a viable technology.

The world is watching, crossing its fingers that Japan will learn from others’ experiences. I am, however, optimistic that the Japanese will embrace international collaboration and that experiences will be shared for sake of the whole industry.

Since the energy crisis began in 2011, I have visited Japan six times, and each time been fascinated by how the Japanese treasure their strong culture, history and heritage, while at the same time fully embracing new technology. It all fuses together into a strange mix that appears to be in perfect harmony, linking the country’s past, present and future.

This feels particularly relevant for us at DNV GL, since 2014 is our 150th anniversary, as well as our first year of operations as one integrated organisation. As part of the anniversary, we have developed a vision of how we think certain technologies and industries could develop up until 2050.

I have led the project focusing on renewable energy, which looks at offshore wind technology and scenarios for development and cost compression. It illustrates how floating wind could grow into a vital part of the world’s energy mix, by exploring integration with the offshore oil and gas industry, using subsea energy storage and powering isolated islands with offshore wind.

We have examined a scenario in which floating wind turbines have been deployed at very large scale, to become the backbone industry for a whole coastal region, generating reliable, affordable energy, and helping fully integrate jobs, clean power, aquaculture and sustainable fishing.

It would require determination and stamina, but the vision is far from unrealistic; in fact, it is the type of story we need to tell, to move the renewable-energy frontier.

As we approach the 2015 COP21 summit in Paris, the climate discussion is heating up. Our common future is on the table and this industry now has less than two years to tell its story. We need to rise to that challenge and demonstrate a credible pathway to a carbon-free society — not just through hard facts, but by creating a narrative in a way that ignites people’s creativity and triggers their imagination.

At the end of the day, inspiration unlocks the future — technology will catch up...

Johan Sandberg is offshore renewables service line leader at DNV GL-Energy

This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable-energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry