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Full steam ahead for Japan with biomass-to-energy push

Steam has traditionally been used to create power, and even to this day it remains an important part of the energy mix, as countries like Japan are finding out. The key to a good biomass-to-energy plant is a steam turbine that performs. Here, Liz Gyekye unpicks this issue.

Japan is the world’s third largest economy and is one of the top electricity producers in the world. In 2011, the country experienced a nuclear disaster in Fukushima – a north-east Japan prefecture. The 2011 accident, triggered by a powerful earthquake and tsunami, sent large quantities of radiation into the atmosphere and forced the evacuation of around 150,000 residents. Prior to the disaster, Japan had generated around 30% of its power from nuclear sources.

Yet, the Fukushima tragedy prompted the Japanese government to think about reducing its reliance on nuclear energy and investing more into renewables. This shift includes plans to derive its future power from solar and wind. However, this does not come without challenges. Japan does not tend to have favourable conditions to produce wind energy as it regularly experiences typhoons and strong turbulent flows caused by its complex terrain. The sun shines, but it doesn’t shine as brightly as it does in some other countries across the world. Nevertheless, Japan has also focused on biomass as being part of its current and future energy mix. In fact, according to the Japan External Trade Organisation, a Japanese governmental organisation that promotes global trade relations, Japan hopes to double biomass generation to 32.8 TWh in 2030.

As a result of this, Japan has invested in biomass-to-energy facilities to help with this task. However, the production process in biomass-to-energy plants is not an easy one. It’s a long chain of different, often complicated steps, but it always starts with the pre-treatment of the bio-feedstock. In Japan’s case, it imports wood chips, primarily from North America. The next step is to burn the treated feedstock in a boiler generating heat which will be used to generate steam. This steam can be utilised by a steam turbine which drives a generator to produce electricity or controlled steam for industrial or district heating usage.

Set up of a Siemens steam turbine in final assembly shortly before delivery. ©Siemens.

As a market leader for industrial steam turbines, technology giant Siemens (@Siemens) offers a comprehensive range of reliable and versatile steam turbines for the power output range from <1 to 250MW. And, according to the company, it is seeing strong demand for its steam turbines in Japan due to the country’s promotion of renewables.

In fact, Siemens power generation equipment will deliver 484MW electricity to the Japanese grid out of biomass after the commissioning of some biomass-to energy plants between 2021-2023.


Orders for Siemens’ steam turbines have come from a variety of Japanese companies, including engineering specialists Toyo Engineering, and Hitachi Zosen.

The scope of supply to Toyo includes a steam turbine of 51.5MW power output, a turbine condenser, generator and turbine controls. The equipment will be installed at a biomass power plant that firm Ishikari Shinko New Energy Hatsuden Godo Kaisha is developing in Ishikari city, Hokkaido, Japan. The commercial operation of the project is planned for 2022.

Likewise, the scope of supply for Hitachi Zosen includes a steam turbine of 74.8MW power output, turbine condenser, generator and turbine controls. The equipment will be installed at a biomass power plant which Tokushima Tsuda Biomass Power Plant G.K. is building in Tokushima city, Tokushima, Japan. The commercial operation for this project is planned for 2023.

The investment by both companies in their new steam turbines is considered crucial to their projects. This is because the steam turbine-generator set plays one of the major roles in any biomass plant. Its performance accounts for the efficiency of the plant and heavily influences the return on investment (ROI). In the long run, low maintenance and service costs offset the initial costs over the entire lifetime, coupled with the efficient use of the fuel, which further lowers the overall costs. Stephan Ludewig, Product Manager Siemens Industrial Steam Turbines, tells BMI that Siemens’ turbines meet all these criteria, which is important in Japan because the “biomass operators pay a high cost to import their wood chips and ship them in, so they need a cost-efficient plant”.

Dual-casing steam turbine

Siemens also offers a servicing network to help maintain the steam turbines, which customers want to keep for a long period (at least 20-years plus). The company also specialises in producing dual casing steam turbines, which are in high demand in Japan.

Saurabh Maniyar, Regional IST Sales Manager at Siemens Energy, says that these turbines feature a generator within its centre and high-pressure (HP) and low pressure (LP) turbines by their sides. Due to these features, Maniyar says its dual casing steam turbines are able to offer higher efficiency compared with their competitors. Conventional dual casing steam turbines tend to offer a generator at one end and HP and LP turbines “one after the other”, which makes the turbines inefficient, Maniyar adds.

Siemens also has a special reheat feature. Steam is first sent into the backpressure steam turbine, which then turns the generator.Then steam is reheated again (outside the turbine) and fed into the condensing steam turbine, to use its energy a second time. By re-heating the steam, its energy is used most efficiently, Siemens says that you get more electricity out of the steam (compared to non-reheat solutions), thus one needs less fuel to get a certain amount of electricity out.

Even though it has seen strong demand for its steam turbines in Japan, Siemens has not had it all plain sailing. “Japan is quite a conservative society, you need employees who speak Japanese on the ground, and it has only recently opened up its biomass equipment market to foreign companies,” Maniyar maintains.

He said well-known biomass equipment companies were already established in Japan before Siemens tried to enter its market. Yet, in recent years, Japan has opened up its market to foreign companies like Siemens and the company has received praise for offering efficient equipment to its customers. “In the last three years, we have had orders of almost 8 units,” Maniyar says.

Siemens is not just seeing strong demand for its steam turbines in Japan, it is actually seeing worldwide interest. In fact, Siemens’ steam turbines have been installed in more than 200 biomass-fuelled plants across the globe. It has recently taken a number of orders for its turbines in China and South Korea. And, it is not just biomass that the steam turbines work with, coal, gas and solar power can heat up boilers. So, its turbines can be used with these sources as well.

All in all, as Kenichi Fujita, President & CEO, Siemens K.K, concludes: “By leveraging our experiences, we will continue to work actively to provide highly efficient steam turbines for our customers and help with the development of renewable and biomass energy power generation in Japan.”

This story was first published in Issue number 17 of the Bio Markets Quarterly.

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