Editor’s Note: Civil Beat’s Joe Rubin spent nine days in Japan last month on an international reporting fellowship. This is the second of a two-part series that examines Japan’s efforts to ensure clean and reliable power and what Hawaii might learn from the island nation.

Read Part 1: Does Japan’s Nuclear Showdown Mean A Slow Down For Renewables?

Our weather couldn’t be much different, especially at this time of year. Still, Japan and Hawaii have much in common. Of course, many Hawaiians — about 25 percent — are of Japanese descent. And we are such a favorite destination for Japanese tourists that on certain corners of Waikiki you are much more likely to hear Japanese than English

On the energy front, we share a great deal. We’re both isolated island chains, largely dependent on expensive polluting fossil fuels that are shipped in to run our cars and to light our homes.

Increasingly, both Hawaii and Japan are aggressively moving to change that by developing robust renewable sectors. In Japan’s case, with nearly all of the nation’s nuclear reactors off line after the Fukushima calamity, the need for homegrown energy is so dire you could make the case that the development of renewables is a national emergency.

Here in Honolulu, if you look up into the hills in some neighborhoods it seems like almost everyone is taking advantage of cheaper solar panel prices and federal and state rebates. Local TV is filled with ads promoting different ways to take advantage.

In Hawaii solar penetration seems to be highest in wealthier neighborhoods. I suspect that’s because those are the people who have the easiest time qualifying for generous rebates and tax incentives. I spoke to one homeowner who recently installed solar and hasn’t needed any energy from the grid for months. His entire rooftop system, he said, would pay for itself in five to seven years. That’s a good investment and tells you which way the wind is blowing in Hawaii.

In the newsroom the other day we were trying to get a fix on just how much renewable energy there is Hawaii. What’s amazing is how estimates vary among experts, from 2 percent to 6 percent. I found the same thing in Japan. Everyone seems to agree that the new feed-in tariff policy that went into effect in July is having a big impact. But how much installed capacity has there been? I heard estimates from 1 gigawatt (about the capacity of a nuclear plant) to 2 gigawatts.

A Different Philosophy When It Comes To Renewables

In Japan there is a different philosophy when it comes to creating renewable energy. Case in point is an intriguing new project called the wind lens being developed in Fukuoka, Japan.

Wind energy has the tendency to divide environmentalists. Take the proposed wind farms on Molokai and Lanai. Many environmental and Native Hawaiian activists are deeply opposed. Others, who see the clean energy producing capability, are all for them.

One of the problems with wind energy is the sheer scale of it. The latest wind mills, clearly visible on Oahu’s north shore, are skyscraper size. Some people have a problem with that kind of visual impact. The turbines also create a persistent hum for anyone who lives nearby and birds have a hard time making them out, so there is the nasty problem of bird strikes.

But the wind lens project in Fukuoka seeks to bridge the divide.

Yuji Ohya, a professor of renewable energy dynamics and applied mechanics at Kyushu University, is developing the wind lens in Fukuoka. Ohya told me that for the Japanese culture, harmony is a critical concept. The wind lens system he is developing is heavily influenced by ancient concepts from Shintoism that encourage a balance with nature.

Because the wind lens recognizes low pressure areas and focuses wind energy, it is both twice as efficient and smaller in scale then today’s industrial turbines. Birds also easily recognize the sphere (they often roost on them) and the spinning blade, eliminating bird strikes.

I was mesmerized observing three wind lens prototypes in a seaside Fukuoka park. The sphere actually rotates to find the most optimum wind. “Think of it like a kite,” Ohya said.

I could definitely see the wind lens fitting in in Waikiki or elsewhere in Hawaii. It would certainly make less of an impact then its more controversial brethren.

If you’re wondering why anyone would possibly install one of the giant conventional wind mills, keep in mind that Ohya’s team does need to figure out how to make his apparatus bigger and more productive before it can be used on a mass scale. The largest one he has created only has the capability of providing energy for about 30 families. But helped along by research and development funding from the Japanese government, the scientist says he is five years away or less from coming up with a much larger system. For now China, Scotland and several areas in Japan have all installed wind lenses.

And Ohya’s vision is bigger than just the wind lens. He told me about a utopian plan that involves the creation of renewable energy creating islands that would float offshore of major Japanese cities.

As you can see in this rendering there are also solar panels. The holes in the middle, Ohya said, could also be fish/aquaculture ponds. How very Japanese to keep the sushi flowing:

Energy Companies of the Future

Something to think about when pondering Japan’s and Hawaii’s energy futures is the future of energy companies. If you believe the most optimistic projections, renewables will account for 80 percent of electricity by 2050 (a figure that scientists say is necessary in order to try and reverse climate change). The utility company of the future will be a very different beast.

At Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, I met up with economics and energy policy professor Andrew DeWit, who says that “renewable energy doesn’t fit into the traditional model where you plunk down that investment capital, you build large-scale centralized power generation and then you just sell.”

DeWit says that renewables are different. “What happens in a dynamic environment where you have people with solar panels on their roofs and wind offshore and on shore and bio mass generators? There are strong political economic challenges because those distributed power sources are generally not in the hands of the utilities. They are in the hands of community groups, local governments, households.”

In Japan, like in Hawaii, utilities are adapting to the world of renewables. Legally, they have to. Purchasing energy from small solar, wind and hydro generating facilities is legally mandated under both Japan and Hawaii’s feed-in tariff policies.

But DeWit said that doesn’t mean that old school companies are efficient or enthusiastic partners when it comes to renewable energy. In Japan, there are reportedly long waits for permitting and for projects to tie into the grid. DeWit said that some cities, like Yokohama, are exploring breaking off from one of the traditional big electricity companies and forming its own municipally run company more geared toward renewables and smart-grid technology.

One thing that DeWit said stuck with me. He said that we are so much at the dawn of the renewable energy era that it’s akin to being at the dawn of the Internet.

Imagine that: before Facebook, Twitter and Google were invented. It makes you wonder what kind of innovations and companies await us.

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