Japan is preparing to bolt turbines onto barges and build the world’s largest commercial power plant using floating windmills, tackling the engineering challenges of an unproven technology to cut its reliance on atomic energy.

Marubeni, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel are among developers erecting a 16-megawatt pilot plant off the coast of Fukushima, site of the nuclear accident that pushed the government to pursue cleaner energy. The project may be expanded to 1,000 megawatts, the trade ministry said, bigger than any wind farm fixed to the seabed or on land.

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“Japan is surrounded by deep oceans, and this poses challenges to offshore wind turbines that are attached to the bottom of the sea,” Senior Vice Environment Minister Katsuhiko Yokomitsu said at a meeting in Tokyo this month. “We are eager for floating offshore wind to become a viable technology.”

The world’s third-biggest economy is struggling to diversify its energy mix after last year’s earthquake and tsunami crippled Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station. A few countries including Britain, the US and South Korea are testing windmills that float, a technology far more expensive than most fossil-fuel or renewable energies.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and its partners are positioning themselves for future contracts to develop gear that so far isn’t used in commercial electricity production.

Cost comparison

Capital expenditure is about $1.7 million a megawatt for an onshore wind project and $5.5 million a megawatt for offshore, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Statoil ASA (STL) has the largest floating project currently, a 2.3-megawatt “Hywind” turbine off the coast of Norway, which cost $29 million a megawatt, according estimates by Fraser Johnston, an offshore wind analyst for the agency in London, based on company data.

A spokesman from Statoil wasn’t available to comment.

“Japan certainly has excellent offshore wind resources and huge potential to develop this sector,” Justin Wu, lead wind analyst for New Energy Finance in Hong Kong, said in an e-mail. “But offshore wind is significantly more expensive than onshore wind at the moment.”

Japan, whose island geography and earthquake risk have long shaped its economy, is lagging behind developed nations including the US, Germany and Spain in wind energy, which supplied just 0.4 percent of its electricity demand in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency Wind 2010 Annual Report. Ranking as the world’s fifth-largest carbon emitter, Japan is trying to elevate its wind-energy capacity from 2,500 megawatts, the 13th-highest among all nations, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

Read the full Bloomberg article here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-29/floating-windmills-in-japan-help-wind-down-nuclear-power-energy.html

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