Japan gears up for offshore push


March 23, 2015

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Four years ago this month the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan. This led to meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

In the aftermath of this disaster the Japanese government started looking at the potential to use renewable energy instead of nuclear. This represented an opportunity for the wind sector to build more onshore and offshore; and there were high hopes that Japan would become a leader in the emerging offshore wind sector.

But, on the face of it, things have not changed much since 2011.

The country has only around 45MW of installed capacity, including a prototype 2MW floating turbine off the Fukushima coast that has been operational since October 2013. Developers and investors have been testing the waters, but none have yet taken the plunge on a large offshore project.

We should not, however, mistake this lack of activity for apathy.

Japanese investors have been highly active in Europe’s offshore wind sector over the last couple of years, and with good reason. This gives them an ideal opportunity to get comfortable with the sector while not having to take the plunge by taking on development risk themselves.

For instance, last August the Marubeni Corporation and the UK’s Green Investment Bank refinanced part of their 50% stake in the 210MW Westermost Rough project, with a group of lenders including Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Bank of Tokyo Mitsubshi, and Mizuho Bank. The followed the deal in December 2013 where Marubeni divested half of its 49.9% stake in the 172MW Gunfleet Sands project to Development Bank of Japan.

And in October, Sumitomo Corporation bought a 39% stake in the 165MW Belwind and a 30% stake in 216MW Northwind in Belgium from developer Parkwind.

All of these deals show that major Japanese corporations have been gaining experience in the sector, and that can only translate into more informed investment decisions in their home market.

This confidence is now starting to translate into activity.

This month, the Japanese energy ministry launched a feasibility study to look at the potential environmental impacts of four offshore wind projects totalling 1.45GW.

These include the 500MW and 200MW schemes off Kitakyushu; a 522MW project off the Goto Islands in Nagasaki prefecture; and a 30MW development by SoftBank Corporation’s SB Energy in Tottori prefecture. Each of these studies is due to begin after April.

This followed the news in February that Japanese shipbuilder Hitachi Zosen and Sumitomo are leading a group that is looking to develop a 220MW wind farm off the coast of the city of Murakamii in Niigata prefecture. The pair are set to conduct a feasibility study on the project, where they plan to start work in 2020 and finish in 2024.

These projects are still in their early days and some may come to nothing, but the scale of the proposed development gives us confidence that one of them might happen. Japanese backers have shown they are happy to back well-thought-out schemes in Europe. An obvious next step would be rolling out that knowledge at home.

It’s four years on from Fukushima. It’s about time.

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