Japan expects unlimited clean energy with giant ocean turbine

A Japanese company is about to launch a massive machine into the ocean to generate energy that, in theory, is unlimited.

It’s a timely proposition given that several countries around the world are facing high energy prices and Japan relies heavily on importing oil and natural gas from elsewhere. In fact, the country’s dependence on fossil fuel energy increased between 2010 and 2016 from 81% to 89%, Japanese government data show.

In the same period, its nuclear power grid was hit after the Fukushima disaster, decreasing from 11.2% to less than 1%.

Some renewable options, such as large wind farms, are not ideal, in part because of Japan’s generally mountainous terrain.

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One photo shows a giant wave breaking. A Japanese company plans to generate tidal power using giant turbines.
RugliG/Getty

That leaves tidal power as one of the few prominent options left if Japan wants to build a domestic, renewable energy supply.

To harness this tidal power, Japanese engineers at Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI Corporation) built a 330-ton tidal power plant called Kairyu. It consists of a 66-foot central cylinder with two more on each side, both with 36-foot turbine blades attached to them.

When operational, Kairyu will be connected to the ocean floor by cables to keep it in place. It will then use the force of the water currents around it to spin turbines that will generate energy. This can then be transferred to Japan’s national power grid.

The company has been working on the machine for years, and in February of this year, it completed a three-and-a-half-year trial off the southwest coast of Japan, Popular Mechanics reports.

IHI estimates that one day it could be possible to generate around 205 gigawatts of electricity from the tides around Japan, which would be enough to meet all of the country’s energy needs. But there is a long way to go.

Kairyu, while huge, is capable of generating 100kW of power. That’s not much when compared to the average onshore wind turbine that has a capacity of 2.5 to 3 MW or more than 6 million kWh per year — enough to supply 1,500 average European households with electricity, according to the European Association of Wind Energy.

Then there are the broader challenges of tidal energy. For one, it’s expensive because of high upfront plant and maintenance costs, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Weather Portal. It also lacks an established production market.

However, some countries, such as Scotland, have established tidal systems. For IHI, the hope will be that tidal energy can be a source of energy with enormous potential if it can be effectively harnessed.

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