With a ceremonial flick of the switch, the room erupted into enthusiastic applause.
The wind conditions were calm that crisp November day, and the floating Hitachi 2MW turbine 20km off the Fukushima coast (but projected onto a screen at the curiously named La La Mew centre) didn’t immediately begin turning. Yet the excitement among the reporters and company executives at the project launch in Onahama, Iwaki City, was palpable, and the broader symbolism of the moment was clear to everyone.
More than two and a half years earlier, a tsunami had devastated Japan’s northeast flank, triggering the nuclear accident that has effectively rendered much of the coastline a virtual dead zone. The switching-on of the first phase of the pioneering Fukushima Forward project — the country’s flagship floating wind farm — was a watershed moment in both the region’s recovery and Japan’s post-tsunami drive to reposition itself as a global renewables leader.
The goal is hugely ambitious — to establish a 1GW floating wind farm by 2020. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has already invested ¥22bn ($210.5m) in the first phase, and plans to inject a further ¥31bn to fund the second phase — to install two 7MW Mitsubishi Heavy Industries SeaAngel turbines, one on a V-shaped semi-submersible platform this year and another on an advanced spar buoy in 2015.
But questions remain over whether the project will ultimately justify its hefty price tag and whether it will succeed in proving the commercial viability of the technologies being tested.
The challenges faced by the Fukushima Forward consortium are immense. The SeaAngel — which is built around a cutting-edge digital displacement drivetrain — is largely untested outside the laboratory, let alone in a hostile deep-water environment, and will be the largest turbine ever installed offshore — fixed or floating. The floating substructures too have yet to meet real-world conditions, while the mooring lines used on the initial phase have already proved problematic.
“Mooring is the key issue, because it’s the most important development problem,” says University of Tokyo professor Takeshi Ishihara, the “godfather” of the project.
The first mooring chains installed to anchor the semi-submersible to the seabed — 120 metres beneath the surface — proved to be too weak, and broke several times. The issue ate up valuable time, extending the entire mooring process from an estimated two weeks to a two-month ordeal.
Another problem is that the six 300-tonne chains currently installed will have to be replaced after ten years, according to Japanese certification body ClassNK.
“But the wind turbine will last for 20 years,” says Ishihara. “And the construction and installation costs are too high to replace the chains.
“If you re-install the mooring system, you need a special vehicle for the installation and it’s very expensive, so we don’t want to remove anything for repairs. We want to repair onsite or go 20 years without repairs.”
So for now, the group will keep an eye on the lines by directly measuring their loads and conducting inspections via remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs).
Ishihara says the consortium needs to standardise its key technologies, such as the floating substations, foundations, mooring equipment and undersea cables, so it can rapidly commercialise.
“If our cable and floater installation methods change case by case, we’ll need different vehicles and devices, and it will get very expensive,” he says. “So for the next stage, we need to use the same technologies for all types of floaters.”
The consortium also needs to figure out how to optimise the limited weather window in which it can install its floating structures — namely, June, July and August — due to typhoons in the autumn, dangerously strong winds throughout the winter and uncertain springs.
But despite all the challenges the project faces, the mood at the grid-connection ceremony was buoyant.
“The government is determined to make this successful,” said Kazuyoshi Akaba, state vice-minister at the METI.
“This is a great step in overcoming the [nuclear] accident,” added Eiju Ono, chairman of the Iwaki City chamber of commerce. “I truly appreciate the nation’s contribution to our city and prefecture.”
Ono believes the roll-out of the wind farm will be a boon to small and medium-sized local manufacturers and bring much-needed jobs to the region, although he was unable to say which companies might benefit. He also said it may be a good thing for the prefecture’s decimated fishing industry, which was hit by the double whammy of contaminated fish and destroyed ports and vessels in the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear accident.
“The project has already turned out to be a gathering point for [uncontaminated] fish,” said Ono, pointing to ROV studies. “Within a year, we’ll be able to start catching fish again. We’re confident.”
However, the fishing unions have yet to come out in support of the project — a major problem in a country where common law dictates that local fishermen have the formal right to manage coastal areas and must be compensated if their operation is obstructed.
Yet the consortium initially stumbled in its early engagement with Fukushima’s fisheries industry.
“They should have communicated with the fishing unions to discuss the plan from the first stage,” argues Professor Kimiaki Yoshida, a specialist in stakeholder management issues at Nagoya University. “But the project was planned without them, and finally some fishermen [expressed] a negative attitude toward it.”
The consortium still needs to work with the unions to determine new fishing methods near the turbines, including efforts to cultivate shellfish and seaweed via marine fertilisation techniques, as well as the possible development of a marine farm.
Its environmental impact assessment will also be key to maintaining popular support for the project, particularly with fishermen. The consortium is examining the effect it is having on birds, and is using ROVs to monitor the behaviour of fish and marine mammals such as whales and dolphins around the floaters and mooring chains.
Japan, the local prefecture and, to some extent, the global floating wind industry have a lot riding on Fukushima Forward. But the consortium is trying to achieve an awful lot in a short time, and success is by no means guaranteed.
As Ishihara says: “In Europe, they’ve had 20 years of development offshore and now they can develop large wind farms. They’re able to try for the next stage, which is to go to deeper water.
“Well, Japan wants to attack the deep water, rather than going to that stage step by step. So we need to shorten that 20-year period — maybe we can [achieve this] in seven.”