Roads typical of the proposed site of a wind turbine project in southern Japan. Photo: Melody Kemp
Roads typical of the proposed site of a wind turbine project in southern Japan. Photo: Melody Kemp

The serried mountain ridges of Tokushima prefecture are among the highest in Japan, some peaks just shy of 2,000 meters. A network of vertiginous roads with more hairpins than a salon challenge pilgrims journeying between the island’s 88 shrines. The area is laced with boulder-strewn rivers so clear one can see discarded drink cans on sandy bottoms. Four-wheel-drive vehicles and motocross riders buzz along the road topping one of those ridges.

This vertical skyscape in southern Japan is where a cluster of 175-meter-tall wind-turbine towers are to be erected by the Orix Group.

Because of its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement, Tokyo has set a determined course to increase the nation’s renewable energy supply. Such a plan should be greeted with enthusiastic approval, but close scrutiny casts doubt on the project’s motives and feasibility.

Evidence of rock-falls lie all around. The rock is unstable, warped and twisted by upthrusts and the trauma of Earth’s early formation. Fallen rocks are propped against trees trunks on the 60-degree slopes. Streaks scar a hillside where, 14 years ago, two people were killed and villages buried when the hillside, sodden with rain, slid away.

“I am concerned that the project will increase the instability,” said social scientist Hitoshi Kuwataka.

Everything connects

In Japan money literally grows on trees: The national currency is made from the tough fibrous cambium of trifoliate trees. “If they have to build new roads, maybe these will be destroyed,” Kuwataka said.

Mountains of Tokushima seen from the project site. Photo: Melody Kemp
Mountains of Tokushima seen from the project site. Photo: Melody Kemp

He admits to having little support for his concerns. “Only old people are left in the villages. There are no schools here, so the children stay with relatives in the city to get an education. They don’t return.

“After the war the natural forest was destroyed to plant cedar, and employed 70% of the local people. It became cheaper to import timber from overseas, so many lost work and left. The old people think that the wind-turbine project will bring work and their relatives back.”

His friend, agriculturalist Kazashi Samura, agreed. “There aren’t enough workers in this area to complete the project. Orix say it will take five years to build their roads. So how will that affect local transport? What about the rivers? There will be runoff and siltation. This area gets so much rain. Good for hydropower, but sediment from the road-building will pollute the rivers and may damage the hydropower turbines.”

The first law of ecology says: Everything is connected to everything else.

Samura added, “The national government is encouraging renewables, enabling companies to sell the power at a higher price. It’s possible Orix is simply buying coal-fired power and using the project to ‘launder’ coal-based power for bigger profits. Or it could be an excuse to make money from engineering development. Shinzo Abe’s government buys political support with big engineering projects.”

He notes an expensive tunnel built to service a village of only 20 people.

A dubious proposal

“Orix already has smaller wind projects near the coast,”Kuwataka continued. “Why do they plan this huge one in some of the highest dangerous and nature areas [sic]? For nationalists like Abe, this area is historical importance [sic] being the ancient Awa Province.”

That is not all. Much about the project makes little sense.

Orix plans to spend three years building the 42 turbines – but prefabrication technology should enable completion in less than a year.  Contemporary practice is to heli-drop components into vertical terrain –  so why do new roads need to be constructed?

The company argues that winds at that altitude are required – but sufficient unimpeded clear air movement can be found at lower altitudes. In Japan, with its propensity for climatic extremes, having regular shutdowns due to overzealous winds is not good business.

The company’s proposal doesn’t mention depreciation, insurance or costs of land acquisition, or local incomes lost during construction. They may be contained in the formal 300-page proposal but are not in the 30-page summary.

Data used in support of the project are extrapolated from another site 5 kilometers away with different wind conditions. The efficiency of wind turbines is exceptionally location-sensitive. Five kilometers is more than enough to alter basic operational parameters.

Orix did not respond to e-mail messages about these concerns.

Getting the nod

Japanese project approval processes are complex and multilayered. From local communities to the national government, everyone gets to comment.

“After a notice was posted on village administrative office doors, local people were given a month to comment,” Samura said. “We understand few people read it. An article included in the local newsletter used technical language, hard for anyone to understand.”

Kuwataka added: “Of the three districts affected by the project, only Kamiyama opposed the project. Naka, which stands to gain more, of course approved.

“Orix has to ask the local governor [mayor] for approval. If he gives a shit, he will ask questions, but if he doesn’t…. They don’t take the dangers like landslides or survival of the bears, deer and raptors into account. They tend to favor employment over everything.’

The Tokushima government is apparently skeptical. According to local sources it has asked questions about impacts on recreational activities, insisting on company responsibility for any project-related disasters (as opposed to ensuring they don’t happen) and the clearing of winter snow. It also asked about the cumulative environmental impact of the 42 new wind-turbine generators, in addition to the 15 nearby and others planned. Yet the prefecture assessment panel did not mention water quality or seriously address geological or climate risk and glossed over biodiversity.

One of the few substantial areas of beech forest left after Japan’s natural forest destruction lies in the path of the wind turbines, according to the company’s own online summary report. Activists had to take screenshots of each page, as Orix used clever programming to prevent printing – citing copyright as the reason.

The area is nominally a wildlife refuge, and contains the remaining population of moon bears, rated as “vulnerable” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List. However, this provides little cover. “In Japan, this means little or nothing unless the area is formally recognized and gazetted as a ‘national conservation area,’” Samura said.

The supposedly neutral prefecture assessment panel expelled four members who openly opposed the project. Its final decision is due by the end of May.

Worth it?

Despite the extravagance of the project, the energy produced will supply only 7,000 households.

Mountainous land may be cheaper to acquire, but the logistics of building new roads needed to convey components and materials for assembly would outweigh any potential profits. Merely hauling construction material for the foundations over 1000 meters in altitude presents substantial risk and costs.

Kuwataka was visited by representatives from a company that purported to be in competition with Orix. The representatives suggested they could haul their own, shorter, 60-meter blades using existing roads and bridges.

But the vertiginous single-lane roadway with hairpin bends every 300 meters or so makes the transport of blades on wide-bed trucks implausible. Moreover, local bridges have load limits of 10-12 metric tons; a truck laden with a blade, tower components or turbines could easily exceed 40 tons.

The young, besuited company boss appeared taken aback by questions, but assured Asia Times that his 6-megawatt project would not require an environmental impact assessment.

However, a check of his “company website” – Shizen Lab – showed a blank page.