Japan’s Tipping Point: Renewable Energy from Wind, Water, Biomass, and More…

By | 2018-01-11T08:41:18+00:00 December 5th, 2011|17 Comments

by Mark Pendergrast

This is my third and final post about the state of Japan’s renewable energy efforts and other measures that are vital to prevent further climate change and to wean the country from fossil fuel and nuclear power. In my first post, I covered the public-health impacts of climate change and explained why Japan is good indicator of whether countries will be able to act quickly enough in the face of these threats. Japan’s reliance on imported fossil fuels gives it a good reason to invest in alternatives, and its technological sophistication should help it develop renewable-energy technology. I investigated Japan’s use of renewable energy for my recently published book, Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World, and what I found was that the country has made progress in some areas but hasn’t realized much of its potential. In my second post, I discussed the country’s limited progress with solar and geothermal energy. Here I will cover Japan’s wind turbines, hydro-power, biomass, energy efficiency efforts, transit, food, lifestyle changes, and new feed-in tariff legislation.

The Winds of Japan
Wind power accounts for only 0.37 percent of Japan’s electricity, despite its potential to supply more than 10 percent. Wind is a challenge, however. Typhoons can rip off the gigantic 100-meter blades of wind turbines. Though they are meant to swivel (“yaw”) to remain perpendicular to the wind, the yaw control motors of most European and American turbines (currently the majority of those functioning in Japan) sometimes can’t react quickly enough, or are knocked out of service, when the eye of a typhoon sweeps through, with wind shifts up to 180 degrees. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developed a weather vane that automatically turns the blades so that they face away from the wind during a typhoon – the safest position. MHI has also overbuilt its support towers to prevent their being toppled by typhoons.

During the winter, when the warm waters of the Sea of Japan meet the cold air coming down from Siberia, fierce lightning storms strike the western coast of Japan. This winter lightning can fry or explode a turbine. MHI’s lightning rods are thus ten times thicker than European standards.

Japan’s complex, mountainous terrain also offers challenges to inland wind turbines, while those built on the coast to take advantage of strong ocean winds must be capable of withstanding tsunamis. And because Japan’s coastline has no continental shelf, off-shore wind farms are more difficult.

Local residents have opposed construction of nearby wind turbines out of concern that the low-frequency vibrations of turbine blades can contribute to headaches, dizziness, insomnia, and other ailments. While a component of low-frequency noise called “infrasound” has been suggested as a possible cause of negative health effects, there are few peer-reviewed studies about health effects related to wind turbines specifically. A recent summary article of peer-reviewed scientific studies, government reports, and popular literature/internet information, written by at a Canadian consulting firm with windpower clients and published in Environmental Health in September 2011, found no direct causal link between physiological health effects and living in proximity to wind turbines. The authors concluded:

In peer reviewed studies, wind turbine annoyance has been statistically associated with wind turbine noise, but found to be more strongly related to visual impact, attitude to wind turbines and sensitivity to noise. To date, no peer reviewed articles demonstrate a direct causal link between people living in proximity to modern wind turbines, the noise they emit and resulting physiological health effects. If anything, reported health effects are likely attributed to a number of environmental stressors that result in an annoyed/stressed state in a segment of the population.

Some in Japan have pointed out that after typhoons knocked out GE wind turbines on the Izu peninsula in 2003, many sufferers still did not recover from their reported health problems. Another concern about turbines is that the whirling blades can kill birds when placed in flight paths.

As with geothermal power, the best potential wind sites are in the less-populated north (Hokkaido, Tohoku) or south (Kyushu). Japan currently lacks a unified electric grid that can accommodate and distribute power to its large population centers. Because wind power is highly variable, a huge surge in power could knock out the system. The solution would be to monitor the turbines and stop the blades from turning if there is a danger of an overload. The best option, of course, would be to store the extra energy in huge batteries, but that isn’t feasible except on a minor local scale.

Wind power could literally begin to replace nuclear power plants, which are all located by the ocean with a good infrastructure in place to deliver power to the grid. Why not build wind farms in the same location? In fact, there are some wind turbines already in those areas.

Offshore turbines could work in a relatively shallow area less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo. Floating off-shore turbines are an unproven but enticing possibility for the future.

Taking Advantage of All That Water
Japan’s large hydroelectric dams were built decades ago, but with heavy rains and rushing mountain streams and rivers, citizens could be taking advantage of multiple smaller hydropower opportunities. The 26 existing large hydro dams produce 4.6 gigawatts. Dams that generate less than one megawatt contribute only 203 megawatts, but there are possible sites for thousands of them.

Big flood control hydro dams could increase their output by using advanced weather forecasts, thus allowing them to fill their reservoirs more effectively. The electric utilities could build new dams in the mid-power range, around 200,000 kilowatts. And local communities could use existing sabo dams (built to prevent erosion) and other rivers to generate smaller amounts. Taken together, these projects could conceivably double Japan’s current hydroelectric output.

But there are problems. Japan’s older large dams are silting up and will require expensive dredging. Also, dams can displace entire villages, as Michiko Ishimure’s 1997 novel, Lake of Heaven, depicted for a mountain community in Kyushu.

With careful planning, however, smaller hydro projects can contribute substantially to Japan’s renewable energy future. People ingenious enough to divert water for their rice paddies can surely also use that flow to produce electricity.

Biomass: Getting Energy from Plants
The magic of photosynthesis turns the sun’s energy into biomass, and humans have developed many ways to get that energy back. The simplest way, of course, is essential to our lives – we eat it. Japan once grew all of its own food and could do so again.

The average age of a Japanese farmer is 65, though there are some idealistic, dedicated young organic farmers. There are a few other hopeful signs. Forty years ago, for instance, the oriental white stork went extinct in Japan, killed by the mercury in pesticides. Thanks to Tetsuro Inaba, a farmer in the small town of Toyooka, the storks (bred in captivity and then released) are back and thriving, and the organic rice of Toyooka is branded as “Stork-Nurturing Rice.”

Yet 40 percent of Japan’s rice paddies lie fallow because people eat other (often imported) forms of starch. The government pays the farmers not to grow surplus rice. Instead, some have proposed using them to grow Hokuriku No. 193, a hardy, prolific strain of rice developed as animal feed. In several pilot programs, bioethanol has been made from this rice, but without a subsidy, it can’t compete with gasoline. It may suffer the same fate as plans to make bioethanol from Okinawan sugar cane – the powerful oil industry squelched it. Still, wouldn’t it be a simple matter for sake manufacturers to modify their process slightly and produce bioethanol as a sideline?

And instead of incinerating 80 percent of wasted food, why not compost it at the household level for the family garden? Or biodigest it to produce methane to burn to make electricity? And why not make compost out of human waste, provided it is not too tainted with chemicals and pharmaceuticals? In traditional Japan, human waste (“night soil”) was prized by farmers in outlying areas, who bought it to nourish their crops.

The Japanese government has unwisely subsidized about 100 factories to produce wood pellets out of the monoculture of spindly Japanese cedar planted after World War II. It requires a ridiculous amount of fossil fuel to turn the logs into sawdust and then compress them, and then no one buys them because wood pellet stoves are prohibitively expensive. Instead, why not use Japanese technological expertise to make small, inexpensive, energy-efficient wood stoves especially designed to burn cedar? True, it burns much faster than hardwood, but it splits easily, and when stacked and dried, it could provide cozy radiant heat (and local jobs) in rural areas. And it would smell wonderful while it waited. Such small stoves, placed at the heart of the home, would echo the irori, the traditional central firepit of the Edo-era Japanese home.

The Machiya With the Double-Glazed Windows
Those homes would be a lot cozier if they were well-insulated and had double-glazed windows. In the wake of the 1970s “oil shocks,” Japanese industries pioneered in energy efficiency, cutting their usage in half from their 1973 levels. Efforts focused particularly on the four sectors that were the biggest energy hogs – iron and steel, chemicals, cement, and paper. But over the ensuing years, even as energy consumption from industry declined, residential and commerce usage went up. In response, Japanese appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators were improved to cut energy use. But no building codes encouraged better insulation, double-glazed windows, or passive solar design.

Japanese housing since World War II has been notoriously flimsy, shoddily constructed, constricted, and expensive. It is a myth that traditional Japanese housing was also poorly made. The old houses were solid and relatively well insulated by straw-mud walls, though they were dark. Why not renovate them? And why not learn from the past while applying modern wisdom? Instead, Japanese citizens live in poorly insulated condominiums incongruously called “mansions.”

In four cities dubbed “Smart Communities,” Japan is also experimenting with the smart grid, which attempts to predict and respond to demand, supply, and storage of electricity, encouraging off-peak usage and conservation. The smart grid concept makes great sense, but it should not be used to promote all-electric homes, and the piecemeal Smart Community approach isn’t going to address the urgent problems facing Japan, its homes, or its electrical usage.

Travel, Community, and Tramlines
The automotive industry is in the throes of converting to electric cars, and I hope they replace gas-guzzlers sooner than later. As more electricity is produced by renewable energy, and car batteries are used to store it, driving will become a more sustainable activity. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the current Japanese lifestyle is sustainable. I agree with Masaaki Naito of the Lake Biwa Environmental Science Research Center. Naito preaches that his countrymen need to rethink their addiction to the automobile, reliance on imported food, and travel to distant lands for relaxation. They need to rediscover traditional community values, local beauty and recreation, and self-sufficiency, while relying more on walking, bicycling, and public transportation.

At this point, readers may be thinking, People in the United States need to do the same thing. Yes, of course! While homes in the United States are, in general, better insulated than in Japan, and we have some innovative renewable energy projects and subsidies, Americans have a long way to go towards switching from fossil fuel and nuclear power to renewable energy sources. Instead, we are fracking for oil and gas and have no national feed-in tariff legislation. But that is another huge subject. I am concentrating on Japan because it is the “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of us.

For my last week in Japan, I moved to Sawanoya Ryokan, a charming inn that specifically caters to foreign visitors, near the Nezu subway stop. It is located in Yanaka, one of the few remaining traditional Japanese neighborhoods in Tokyo, with small bakeries, restaurants, and specialty shops. I could walk the quiet streets and greet families with little children or old people watering their plants. On a Saturday, I walked around a nearby area with dozens of temples and shrines, where I heard the sounds of drums, chants, songs, and prayers. These were not tourist attractions – they were places of community gathering and worship.

I bought Welcome to Sawanoya, Welcome to Japan, by Isao Sawa, 74, the patriarch of the family-run inn. In it, he told the story of the inn’s earlier years. In 1972, Tokyo ripped up the electric tramline that went to nearby Ueno, a major travel hub, thereby nearly killing the inn’s business. Sawa converted part of the building to apartments and went to work in a downtown hotel. Only by switching to a focus on travelers from overseas in 1982 did the inn survive. I hope that Japan’s cities will undo their mistakes of the past. Among other things, they should restore their electric streetcar lines.

Japanese Camouflage
Instead, I fear that Japanese leaders and bureaucrats will continue to give lip service to eco-cities and eco-lives, or the new buzz word, smart-communities, smart-services. They will pass nice-sounding legislation without real teeth or sufficient budgets. But there may be no systemic change until another crisis precipitates drastic moves to avert disaster. And by that time it may be too late.

Still, Japan may be tipping in the right direction, with the passage of feed-in tariff (FIT) legislation for renewable energy, to take effect on July 1, 2012. Sharp Corporation President Mikio Katayama, the current chairman of the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association, praised the new legislation, saying that it would “strengthen the competitiveness of the Japanese solar power industry and jump-start regional industries and job creation.” Already, Mitsui and Toshiba have announced plans to build a huge 50 megawatt solar panel array in Aichi Prefecture by 2013.

But as Naomi Fink, a Japan strategist for Jefferies & Company, a global securities and investment banking group, observed, “Though symbolically ground-breaking, there remain some unanswered questions regarding cost, surrounding infrastructure and regulation.” Hirofumi Kawachi, a senior analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities, was more blunt: “The bills are half-baked. The investment plan is there but financing is lacking – there is no detailed roadmap to finance infrastructure investments needed to make the scheme work, such as setting up proper transmission networks.”

Kawachi’s last point is crucial. Even with the new law, much remains undone. The electric utility monopolies still exist, and it is unclear how they will accommodate a large influx of variable renewable energy. Without reform legislation aimed at the utilities – such as making the grid a public asset, and money spent on improved transmission lines – it is unlikely that renewable energy made in remote rural areas will find its way to major population centers. The new law has a loophole that could scuttle its impact, since the utilities can reject renewable energy that hinders a “smooth supply” of electrons.

The salvation of Japan may lie with wealthy businessmen like Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, who has pledged that Softbank will spend $1 billion to build 10 massive solar PV panel installations in Japan. Softbank may thus add 30 gigawatts of renewable energy to the grid by itself, which equals the target of the new FIT legislation for the next ten years.

Nonetheless, the situation for specific renewables remains dire. Geothermal is still banned from national parks, and onsen owners resist nearby plants. Geo-heat remains a fledgling hardly out of the nest. Wind turbines still must face tsunamis and typhoons, while they are still perceived as health threats and bird hazards. Solar hot water endures as an underused, reliable technology because of its poor image. The majority of Japan’s waste food (most of it imported) is still incinerated instead of recycled into feed, compost, or energy, and the wood pellet factories continue to use thinned cedar trees to make energy-wasteful, unprofitable bits of compressed sawdust. There are still no programs or building codes to promote well-insulated homes with traditional features. The smart grid remains a field test in only four cities, and the Future-Model Cities, not yet named, are quite likely to provide more puffery than substance.

But for the sake of Japan and the world, I hope my skepticism proves to be unwarranted.

i-3530c72b4711019d88c970a4e067c224-MP&cover2.jpgMark Pendergrast is the author of Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (which was featured in the ScienceBlogs Book Club) and several other books, including, most recently, Japan’s Tipping Point. Email and book information is available at his website.

About the Author:

The Pump Handle


  1. Nick December 5, 2011 at 11:42 am - Reply

    Japan’s reliance on imported fossil fuels gives it a good reason to invest in alternatives


    Whopping assumption that false.

    It depends on the relative costs of fossil versus alternatives.

    It depends on the speed of converting to the alternatives.

    If fossil is 10% of the cost of wind power, it’s an irrelevance.

    If the cost of fossil rises up to the cost of wind, then what matters is how quickly you can implement wind.

    If efficiencies of wind generation are increasing, then it makes sense to wait, because you can take advantage of the cheaper generation when it arrives.

  2. Mark Pendergrast December 5, 2011 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your comments, Nick, but I could not disagree more with you. Climate change is already happening and will worsen in time. We must act quickly and decisively, as soon as possible. Fossil fuel costs are enormous when you consider the ultimate health impacts, and they have been and are being subsidized in many ways.

  3. Chris December 5, 2011 at 8:58 pm - Reply

    Hey nice articles…though I am curious about your paragraph on the public transportation saying Japan needs to make more street cars. Japan already has the highest rail usage in the entire OECD and the lowest private car usage for main commuted in the OECD as well…so I think there should have only been praise for this. In fact I don’t even know how much sense streetcars would make in the urban areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya..but you could make a point about them for the “suburbs”.

  4. Raging Bee December 5, 2011 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    If efficiencies of wind generation are increasing, then it makes sense to wait, because you can take advantage of the cheaper generation when it arrives.

    Technology is ALWAYS improving, so that can be used as an excuse to wait forever and never make a decision to adopt any technology. “Technology will always get better, therefore we should never decide to use it?” That’s fucking ridiculous.

  5. Rod Adams December 6, 2011 at 7:06 am - Reply

    I’m a lazy engineer. I cannot understand why anyone would go to so much trouble to design and build massive collection systems whose output is dependent on unreliable, weather driven energy flows. I recognize the dangers of continuing to dump massive quantities of fossil fuel waste into the environment.

    That is why I am such a strong proponent of reliable power systems that are clean enough to run inside submarines and safe enough to enjoy keeping them within a few hundred feet at all times.

    Why should the aftermath of an enormous natural disaster that killed 20,000 people and destroyed a nuclear power station without causing any radiation related casualties cause a rational person to shy away from nuclear energy? I believe that George Monbiot’s reaction to Fukushima has been much more logical; it stimulated him to realize just how frequently the antinuclear opposition resorts to spreading misinformation designed to advance its agenda. Here is a quote from an article he published in the Guardian yesterday:

    “Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo-jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them.”


    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  6. Wow December 6, 2011 at 8:07 am - Reply

    “I cannot understand why anyone would go to so much trouble to design and build massive collection systems whose output is dependent on unreliable, weather driven energy flows.”

    That’s because you’re not only a lazy engineer, you’re a crap one.

    You have weather 100% of the time everywhere on the globe. Your complaint lacks coherence, proof of your crapulence.

  7. Wow December 6, 2011 at 8:10 am - Reply

    “If fossil is 10% of the cost of wind power, it’s an irrelevance.”

    But since fossil is 90-400% the cost of wind power, it’s not.

    Lucky for Japan, innit.

  8. Mark Pendergrast December 6, 2011 at 8:45 am - Reply

    First, a plea for civility. Name calling isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Rod Adams, the proponent of nuclear energy, points out that no one has yet died from the Fukushima disaster. He might also have pointed out that surprisingly few deaths have resulted from the Chernobyl meltdown, and many of those thyroid cancer deaths could have been prevented by avoiding irradiated milk. (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs303/en/index.html) Nonetheless, I am not in favor of nuclear power, which produces long-term radioactive wastes, and I do not the trust human beings who run them. Regardless, the political realities in Japan preclude new nuclear plants for the next 20 years, at least, even according to nuclear advocates.

  9. Wow December 6, 2011 at 9:04 am - Reply

    “Name calling isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.”

    Nothing will if the position made could never have been arrived at by rational thought and evidence.

    And how do you know it doesn’t? Shame has been used before and successfully. So I guess you have to prove that point first, hmm?

    I note that you couldn’t formulate the reason why his “dependent on unreliable, weather” makes ANY form of engineering sense. Hence my attribution of “crap engineer” is not name calling, but correct and evidences attribution.

    PS why do you say “Regardless, the political realities preclude…” when it comes right after you saying that the waste problem and the avoidance of the cost of proper security of nuclear power are there and real?

  10. David A December 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Mark, what is the basis for your distrust of the human beingd who operate nuclear plants? Does this distruast extend to people workinfg with any supposedly hazardous technology or is it limited to nuclear plant operators? Why don’t you look into the hours of training and retraining those operators under go on a six week training cycle and see if it compares to any other profession? If after that you still distrust them then i would suggest that the your distrust is completly irrational.

  11. Treadmill Workouts Producer December 6, 2011 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    Japan better do something. The leaking Nuke plant just shows how vulnerable these plants are to the unpredictable Japanese geology. I like the idea of solar but output music increase and cost decrease… hard to do in these poor economic conditions.

  12. Mark Pendergrast December 6, 2011 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    First, let me briefly answer “Wow,” about name-calling being ineffective. I agree that shame can be effective, but it has to be based on fact-finding. Name-calling has never done any good that I know of, other than to polarize people and to keep them from listening to one another. Rod is right that it is difficult to rely exclusively on weather-based renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Ideally, we will develop ways to save such energy for use during “bad” weather times, but so far, those methods aren’t workable for large amounts of energy. That’s one of the reasons that the Japanese should be looking at their enormous geothermal potential, which does provide baseload energy. But solar and wind can be very effective, when the wind blows and the sun shines, and should be pursued.

    Rod asks why I distrust human beings in terms of running nuclear power plants. Well, the Japanese have a long and dishonorable record of accidents, leaks, and coverups. See my book, Japan’s Tipping Point, for some details. In fact, I urge all of you to read the book (it’s short and cheap) before you criticize too much of my summary here at the Pump Handle.

    But it isn’t just the Japanese. I live in Vermont, where the aging Vermont Yankee nuclear plant has been leaking cesium and tritium, and the owners have lied and minimized and are trying to sue the state of Vermont, saying they have no right to shut them down when their contract expires in 2012. In an interesting New Yorker article on Fukushima and its aftermath, “The Fallout,” by Evan Osnos (Oct. 17, 2011) the author cites the work of Yale sociologist Charles Perrow talking about Three Mile Island: “In all, four safety systems failed within thirteen seconds. Perrow observed that, as technological systems become ever more complex, disasters that appear to result from a confluence of bad coincidences become, in fact, unavoidable, as a failure in one part causes a failure in another and another in ways that no designer could predict. Extraordinary disasters become, in Perrow’s word, ‘inevitable.’ He called these collapses ‘normal accidents.’ ” So I am worried about such “normal accidents” in many of the 432 nuclear plants around the world.

  13. MikeB December 7, 2011 at 3:26 am - Reply

    Considering the history of nuclear energy in Japan, and the various ways in which TEPCO et al captured government regulators, its difficult to see how anyone in Japan would trust the nuclear industry again.

    Part of this legacy is the mismatched and fragmented distribution system, which hampers devolved power production, such as wind, hydro, etc. The tightening up of building codes and pressure improved efficency will also help, since a smart grid goes hand in hand with demand management.

    Anyone who think that Japan can rely on imported fossil fuel isn’t paying attention. The costs of oil/gas are on a long-term upward trend, and a sudden jump in price would be devestating for the Japanese economy. Better to get ahead of the curve, and of course the technologies developed in Japan will have a customer base abroad.

    As for Monbiot’s latest dappiness – I notice that there is not one hard costing in the whole article (and someone who asked that very question in the comments got little in return). He’s basically read a book by someone who has a bee in his bonnet about IFR’s (again very light on figures), and repeated it, adding his own gloss on the ‘luddite greens’. If he had used google, he would have found a UCS report about the book in question.

    In reality, there are no hard numbers on this technology. No one has yet built one in the way the article describes, and if you look at the history of promises from the industry, is it likely that they will cost what they say?

    OK – when someone builds one, I’ll look at it. Until then, I’ll look at how the costs of solar have fallen dramatically, and may well equal coal in a couple of years. Hard numbers, not handwaving.

    Monbiot has history. Remember biochar? Airships? Still, most of the time he gets it right…

  14. Wow December 7, 2011 at 11:28 am - Reply

    “what is the basis for your distrust of the human beingd who operate nuclear plants”


    Those who RUN it aren’t the operators, though.

    And they aren’t living and working there. They’re immune to the problems of a failure but are not immune to the costs of preventing a failure.

  15. Wow December 7, 2011 at 11:30 am - Reply

    “Why don’t you look into the hours of training and retraining those operators under go on a six week training cycle”

    The Chernobyl engineers were swapped out for a cheaper operator bid.

    And that training is a cost. It will only be done if forced and will only be as good as necessary.

  16. bingo December 9, 2011 at 6:28 am - Reply

    It is very hard to believe about the tragedy that Japan had faced and still facing,
    The finest weapon Japan have is there water and dams full of water and they can make recovery through that.
    And secondly Japan have finniest technology to capture solar energy,
    Thanks for the post and opportunity to give an opinion at this topic.

  17. Robert J Kolker July 4, 2016 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Solar and Wind energy will not, with current technology support industry (which is the source of our prosperity). The Sun does not shine at night nor does the wind always blow.

    Solar and Wind power will not become primary until an economic means of storing vast amounts of energy is developed

Leave A Comment