Japan adds weight to tidal momentum

Japan’s plans to create a home-grown tidal industry seem to be gathering pace, with officials looking to the European Marine Energy Centre for advice.

By Jason Deign on Jan 19, 2015

Nagasaki appears to leading Japan’s charge into the tidal industry with plans for a test site loosely modelled on the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC).

The site will be one of a number dedicated to the development of marine renewable energy sources including tidal, wave, floating offshore wind and ocean thermal energy conversion.

At least two tidal sites are currently under consideration after the Japanese government issued an invitation for prefectures to put forward site proposals in March 2013. Seven local governments had put forward a total of 11 candidate sites by March last year.

This long-list was narrowed down to six in July 2014, three of which are in Nagasaki. The prefecture is proposing waters off the islands of Kugashima and Ejima for tidal testing, and Kabashima for floating offshore wind.

The other main contender for a tidal site is nearby Saga Prefecture, which is proposing a location off Kabejima island that will also serve for offshore wind testing.

The site was supposed to be home to Japan’s first pilot tidal technology, a hybrid design featuring a three-bladed vertical-axis Darrieus wind turbine on a floating foundation housing a Savonius ocean-current machine.

Hybrid system

However, its owner, the offshore oil platform supplier Mitsui Ocean Development & Engineering Inc (MODEC), last month said the floating wind and current hybrid power generation system, called SKWID, had sunk while being installed. It had previously sunk in Japan’s inland sea.

Meanwhile a 10-strong delegation from Nagasaki Prefecture visited EMEC in Scotland this month to gather information for a business plan to request central government funding for a test facility.

The visit was the latest in a series of fact-finding and knowledge transfer sessions between EMEC and Nagasaki Prefecture officials. “We think there’s a big opportunity for our supply chain to work with Japan,” said Neil Kermode, managing director of EMEC, in a press release.

Members of the Scottish test centre have visited Japan four times in the last two years, says Ian Johnstone, a renewable energy consultant with Orkney-based environmental services group Aquatera, which works closely with EMEC.

Nagasaki already has a big shipbuilding presence and so could mobilise the services needed to set up a test site in short order, Johnstone believes. The Prefecture has already started on site development work.

Dr Per Christer Lund, an energy advisory principal consultant at DNV GL who advises the Japan Electric Power Exchange, says Japan’s Department of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) has already allocated major funds to tidal.

Device testing

He says it has set aside 1 billion yen (€7.4m) for the creation of a ‘Japan Marine Energy Centre’, similar to EMEC, with two sites for full-scale marine energy device testing. Nagasaki could be a front-runner for this facility thanks to its strong ocean currents.

Lund notes that the final selection of a site has already been delayed from last year, perhaps due to political manoeuvring, but will likely happen during 2015.

Potential customers would include Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which has a turbine design under development and appears to have dropped plans to take a berth at EMEC, or other major Japanese engineering groups.

NEDO, for example, has sponsored research and development by a consortium including the University of Tokyo, IHI Corporation, Toshiba and the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute.

And earlier this month IHI and Toshiba were selected by NEDO as co-researchers in a project called R&D of Ocean Energy Technology – Demonstration Research of Ocean Energy Power Generation.

Other Japanese companies with a potential interest in tidal development include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, Toyo Engineering Corporation, Shimizu, Pulse Tidal investor Marubeni, or even shipbuilders such as Oshima Shipbuilding.

Home-grown industry

With such potential for a major home-grown industry, and relatively few places where there is enough marine resource to build sizeable arrays, it seems doubtful whether foreign manufacturers will get much of a look in when Japan’s tidal energy sector takes off.

That is particularly true for government-sponsored schemes, which will naturally favour national consortia. Once Japanese tidal achieves commercial scale, however, there could well be scope for partnerships between Japan’s industrial giants and those of other countries.

This has already happened in offshore wind, where MHI has partnered with the Danish turbine maker Vestas. Similar tie-ups could not be ruled out for tidal in the medium to long term.

For now, though, Japan’s commitment to tidal is likely to mean a welcome injection of engineering skill for the industry.

And during his visit to EMEC, Takaaki Morita, director of Nagasaki Prefectural Government’s marine energy development office, was keen to highlight his territory’s credentials as the prime location for tidal testing in Japan.

“Nagasaki wants to lead this movement towards marine renewables and be the frontrunner of a new industry in Japan,” he explained in a press statement.