Japan's trial of a deep ocean turbine could offer limitless renewable energy

The future of power generation for the nation looks green.
Loukia Papadopoulos
IHI's deep-ocean Kairyu.IHI Corp.

Japan is both power-hungry and fossil-fuel reliant making for a bad combination but that could all soon change. The nation has now successfully tested a system relying on the deep ocean that could provide a reliable steady form of renewable energy, according to a report by Bloomberg published Tuesday.

A project over ten years in the making

The invention comes from Japanese heavy machinery maker IHI Corp. The company has been developing a subsea turbine that harnesses the energy in deep ocean currents for over ten years. 

The giant sea turbine called Kairyu looks like a 330-ton airplane. It features two counter-rotating turbine fans that are connected by a massive fuselage and it functions by floating while anchoring to the sea floor at a depth of 30-50 meters (100-160 feet).

IHI Corp. has ambitious plans to site the turbines in one of the world’s strongest currents (the Kuroshio Current) and transmit the power via seabed cables. Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) speculates that this current could potentially generate as much as 200 gigawatts of reliable energy.

This is the equivalent of 60% of Japan’s present generating capacity. 

“Ocean currents have an advantage in terms of their accessibility in Japan,” Ken Takagi, a professor of ocean technology policy at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, told Bloomberg. “Wind power is more geographically suited to Europe, which is exposed to predominant westerly winds and is located at higher latitudes.”

Looking for alternatives

Japan has been looking into renewable energy as a viable option for providing its citizens with energy, especially after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Most of its investments so far have been in wind and solar. 

The nation is already the world’s third-largest generator of solar power and has made ambitious investments in offshore wind. But neither of these energy sources could provide the stability and reliability that power systems based on ocean currents generate.

For comparison purposes, ocean currents have a capacity factor of 50 to 70 percent, while onshore wind has 29 percent and solar has 15 percent. 

But not all is bright for IHI Corp. The company has many obstacles to overcome before its sea turbine could be viable as it’s much more complicated to install a system underwater than it is to experiment with onshore facilities. This is because underwater systems have to be tough enough to withstand the aggressive and hostile conditions of deep ocean currents.

“Unlike Europe, which has a long history of the North Sea Oil exploration, Japan has had little experience with offshore construction,” added Takagi. 

“Japan isn’t blessed with a lot of alternative energy sources,” he said. “People may say that this is just a dream, but we need to try everything to achieve zero carbon.”

One thing is for sure. If Japan proves successful at building this new power generator, it will have taken a giant step forward toward clean, green, and safe energy production. 

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