ONAHAMA PORT, Japan - Japan switched on the first turbine at a wind farm 20 kilometres (12 miles) off the coast of Fukushima on Monday, feeding electricity to the grid tethered to the tsunami-crippled nuclear plant onshore.
The wind farm near the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant is to eventually have a generation capacity of 1 gigawatt from 143 turbines, though its significance is not limited to the energy it will produce. Symbolically, the turbines will help restore the role of energy supplier to a region decimated by a population exodus following the multiple meltdowns triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
"Many people were victimized and hurt by the accident at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, so it is very meaningful to have a new source of energy — renewable energy — based here," said Kazuyoshi Akaba, a vice minister of economy, trade and industry, after the turbine was turned on.
"It is the government's mission to ensure this project is a success," he said.
The project also highlights Japan's aspirations to sell its advanced energy technology around the globe.
Trading houses such as Marubeni Corp., which is leading the consortium building the offshore wind farm, are investing aggressively in renewable energy as well as conventional sources, helped by government policies aimed at nurturing favoured industries.
All of Japan's 50 viable nuclear reactors are offline for safety checks under new regulatory guidelines drawn up after the Fukushima disaster. Utility companies have applied to restart at least 14 reactors under those new guidelines, which include more stringent requirements for earthquake and tsunami protections, among other precautions.
In Japan, the push to tap more renewable sources to help offset lost power capacity, and reduce costs for imported natural gas and oil, also got a boost last year with the implementation of a higher wholesale tariff for energy generated from non-conventional sources.
Japan, whose coast is mostly ringed by deep waters, is pioneering floating wind turbine construction, required for seabed depths greater than 50 metres (165 feet). The 2 megawatt downwind floating turbine that began operation Monday was built at a dry dock near Tokyo and towed to its location off the northeastern coast. Six huge chains anchor it to the seabed 120 metres (almost 400 feet) below.
The turbine is linked to a 66 kilovolt floating power substation, the world's first according to the project operators, via an extra-high voltage undersea cable.
As the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. struggle to clean up from the nuclear disaster and begin the decades-long task of decommissioning Fukushima Dai-Ichi, Japan's energy industry is in the midst of a transition whose outcome remains uncertain.
Most leading members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the powerful business lobbies such as Keidanren, and many experts, argue that wind and other renewables alone simply cannot make up for the steady and huge baseload power produced by nuclear plants.
"I favour renewables. But it would be irresponsible to create a pie-in-the-sky claim that renewables alone are the answer," said Paul Scalise, a fellow at Tokyo University and expert on Japan's energy industry. "There is no such thing as a perfect power source."
He cites figures showing wind power's average generating capacity at 2 watts per square meter versus 20 watts per square meter for solar power — and 1,000 watts per square meter for nuclear.
Eventually there could be dozens of wind turbines off Fukushima's scenic but deserted coast. The project is meant to demonstrate the feasibility of locating these towering turbines in offshore regions where the winds are more reliable and there are fewer "not in my backyard" concerns. Bigger turbines that might create noise problems onshore are not an issue so far offshore.
Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture who has lobbied hard for support following the 2011 disasters, said he expected local businesses to benefit from the wind farm. A research centre is planned for Koriyama, a city further inland, and studies are underway on the impact of local fisheries from the floating turbines.
"We are moving ahead one step at a time. This wind farm is a symbol of our future," Sato said.
In theory, Japan has the potential for 1,600 gigawatts of wind power, most of it offshore. About a dozen projects are already in the works, from Kyushu in the south to Hokkaido in the north.
But wind power can be notoriously unstable: when the switch was pushed to "on" on Monday, the audience of VIP officials watched tensely as the wind turbine's blades, displayed on a video screen at a tourist centre onshore, appeared becalmed. Eventually, though, the blades slowly began rotating.