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Time, money invested in alternative energy beginning to pay off in Japan

KUMEJIMA, Japan — Years of painstaking research into alternative energy options in Japan have produced working prototypes that could lead to a large-scale reduction in use of fossil fuels in Japan and Pacific islands.

As countries of the world prepare to convene in Paris at the end of November for a pivotal climate action summit, officials in Japan say ocean thermal and hydrogen energy products are moving beyond the experimental stage and will soon be making a major contribution to clean energy production in Japan and beyond.

Click to enlarge
An experimental ocean thermal energy conversion plant on Kumejima, Japan is providing the enabling environment for aquaculture, agriculture and cosmetic businesses.  Photo by Giff JohnsonAn experimental ocean thermal energy conversion plant on Kumejima, Japan is providing the enabling environment for aquaculture, agriculture and cosmetic businesses. Photo by Giff Johnson

The north Pacific governments in the Marshall Islands and Palau have both expressed interest in ocean thermal energy to reduce their dependence on diesel-powered electricity.

The use of deep ocean water to produce energy is “on the brink” of expansion, said Benjamin Martin, the international relations coordinator for the Deep Sea Water Utilization and Ocean Thermal Energy Project or OTEC on Kumejima, near Okinawa, Japan.

Similarly, Toshiba Corporation has ramped up its research and development work on hydrogen energy, opening a showcase research facility at its main Fuchu Complex in Tokyo, while Toyota is building an estimated 700 hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles this year, with plans to increase to 3,000 a year by 2017.

Although demonstration OTEC power facilities have been in operation in Hawaii and Japan for decades, the high cost to build a large plant has bottlenecked expansion.

Kumejima Mayor Haruo Oota is promoting a Kumejima Model that integrates expanded use of OTEC power to reduce carbon emissions while using the nutrient-loaded and cold deep ocean water to support a wide array of industries including agriculture, aquaculture and cosmetics production.

“If we are successful with OTEC, we can become self-sufficient in energy use,” Oota said, adding that they see the OTEC and its business applications as a model for export.

Although the OTEC facility and pipe capacity is limited to 10,000 tons of deep sea water daily, it is supporting prawn, sea grape and other aquaculture products, cosmetic production, and vegetable growing that is generating $20 million annually for businesses associated with the research facility, Martin said.

“But production is tied to the capacity of the pipeline,” he said, adding that the existing businesses “have grown up around access to deep sea water” that is largely bacteria-free and cold.

Cold water circulated in pipes under plant beds speeds growth time for vegetables, while the clean deep sea water offers a safe environment for growing marine products, Martin said.

The high cost to expand the pipeline to increase deep sea water availability to 100,000 tons daily “is why we need to develop the Kumejima Model to pay for it,” said Martin.

The aim is to see business expansion so that deep sea water is used multiple times, generating revenue to cover the high cost of installation, which cannot be recovered by electricity production alone.

The existing pipeline cost $20 million to install and is helping local businesses generate to expand.

Martin said a new pipeline to increase deep sea water intake ten-fold will cost $80 million.

Key to paying for this is integrating multiple uses for power and water that offset the capital costs, he said.

The Deep Sea Water Research Institute was established 15 years ago on Kumejima.

Operation of the Kumejima 100-kilowatt OTEC plant has generated several years of data that has been used to prove theoretical models for ocean thermal conversion, while allowing scientists to improve OTEC plant equipment, reducing costs.

“We’re on the brink,” said Martin. “It’s just a matter of time when we get funding to build a one megawatt OTEC facility.”

He believes this step-by-step process is the prudent way to develop OTEC so that engineers can confirm that results seen with the demonstration plants work at a bigger scale.

“We need to build the first full-scale plant,” Martin said. “That’s why we are moving forward with this project to show that it is viable both for other small islands and for bigger areas.”

Tsukasa Nakamichi, plant manager for Kumejima Deep Sea Water Development Company, said access to deep sea water piped directly from the OTEC plant to his warehouse of aquaculture tanks has made his company the leading sea grape producer.

His land-based farm is producing 180 tons a year, the majority of the 340 tons of this product produced annually on Kumejima Island.

“Without OTEC, we would have no water and would not be able to do it (growing) at this scale,” he said.

Atsushi Ohmichi, CEO of the cosmetics manufacturer Point Pyuru, said use of deep sea water for his products of lotions, shampoos and skin treatments is a strong selling point with customers.

“Being on a remote island could be a negative, but with access to deep sea water, we have changed this disadvantage to an advantage,” Ohmichi said.

“My goal is to create a clean energy factory using water and energy from OTEC. Our products might be higher priced, but we concentrate on the market that prefers this type of product.”

In Tokyo, Toshiba engineers have spent 50 years researching hydrogen power.

Their first commercial products were put on the market in 2009, and this year the company has stepped up its research and development with plans to roll out a series of new hydrogen energy products over the next 10 years.

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Dr. Tatsuoki Kono says Toshiba Corporation has a series of hydrogen energy products to power communities.  Photo by Giff JohnsonDr. Tatsuoki Kono says Toshiba Corporation has a series of hydrogen energy products to power communities. Photo by Giff Johnson

“We have technology for hydrogen energy and it is more stable than photovoltaic or wind power,” said Dr. Tatsuoki Kono, senior manager of Toshiba’s New Energy Solution Project.

As the first stage of commercial use of hydrogen fuel for communities, Toshiba is placing hydrogen storage tanks in 20-foot containers so they are mobile and can be transported for emergency response to disasters.

“We have been testing this in Kawasaki City since April this year,” Kono said. One tank in a 20-foot container can provide power and water to 300 people for a week.

Next year, Toshiba will offer independent energy systems for use in buses, airports and seaports. By 2017, it aims to offer a “remote island model” using a network of container tanks to power remote areas.

“Isolated islands now depend on costly fossil fuels for electricity,” Kono said. “We can solve this problem by providing a stable power source for communities with 50 to 100 houses.”

By 2025, the company expects to have produced hydrogen-powered units capable of generating five megawatts of electricity that can replace diesel plants.

“Our aim is a zero emissions society,” Kono said.

Martin said even the currently limited size OTEC facility has created the enabling environment for several businesses, resulting 140 new jobs, a not insignificant number for Kumejima with a population of 8,300.

Both Kono and Martin see these clean energy options expanding to reduce carbon emissions in Japan, and for other areas, including Pacific islands.