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Japanese solar energy use

Solar Energy, Japan
Solar cells in Okazaki
Click to enlarge
One of the most noticeable "booms" in Japan recently is one that will probably extend a lot further, and unlike other booms become a permanent fixture. Using solar power to heat water has long been common in Japan. However in the last few years arrays of photovoltaic cell panels have started to appear everywhere, from the rooftops of the terminals at the airport, to those of local schools and factories. The most noticeable growth though has been the large number of new houses incorporating solar energy into their design, and existing households retrofitting solar panels to their rooves.

In 1997, Japan took the lead as the country generating the most power from solar energy, a lead it has extended in the years since, with production passing 1.13 million kilowatts during 2005. As was the case during the rapid growth years of the 1960's, it is the exports that are grabbing the headlines, even though it is domestic demand that is actually underwriting the boom. Sharp Corporation is the market leader, and although they have reinvested heavily in their production capacity, other manufacturers are moving into the industry as demand continues to increase exponentially, at growth rates now passing 20%. The vast majority of the solar panels produced in Japan are sold and installed in Japan. In 2006 more than 100,000 households installed solar panel systems, the first time that sales surpassed 100,000 in a calendar year. Leading manufacturers of prefabricated houses (ie catalog houses made to order, then assembled on site) such as Sekisui Heim, have reported than more than half of their annual sales in 2005 were homes that included solar energy generation. In the case of Sekisui, that was 53% of more than 11,500 houses. The Japanese government is actively stimulating the market through a range of incentives, and the goal is to more than quadruple the amount of energy produced by solar power from last year's 1.13 million kilowatts to more than 4.8 million kilowatts just 4 years from now. While a certain percentage of that will be through industrial generation, a large and vital amount will be from ordinary houses.

The reason behind the boom is a simple matter of economics. The retail price of electricity in Japan is relatively expensive. Problems with Japan's nuclear power plants have exacerbated the energy problem. For example the accident in 1995 at Monju, shut down the only fast breeder reactor in Japan (it is still closed), and all 17 of the nuclear plants managed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company were shut down in 2003 after the government discovered that the company had been falsifying safety documentation. The result is that the vast majority of the electricity generated in Japan is from burning coal & natural gas, almost all of which is imported, and which has become increasingly more expensive as commodity prices continue an upward trend. In this respect, the demand for solar panels is mirroring the demand for the excellent mass produced hybrid cars being sold by Toyota Motor and Honda.

Solar Energy, Japan
Hybrid solar/wind power generation in Numazu - Click to enlarge
There is considerable government and corporate support for the industry subsidies and other incentives in place. The cold winter in 2005/06 caused Japan to overshoot its emissions targets, and put upward pressure on the prices paid by industry for essential power. Japan has a thriving carbon trading market and very widespread implementation of ISO14000 standards, but current prices and energy demand is such that there was quick recognition that something had to change, and change fast.

Installing the average solar power system costs about 650,000 yen per kilowatt. The cost and size of the panels is falling annually, while their efficiency continues to improve, generating significant power even during cloudy weather. Architects have learned how to design optimal space and surfaces, accelerating the move towards passive solar designs. The result is that many families are drastically reducing the amount of energy purchased from the power grid, and in some cases become net sellers of electrical power - earning income while reducing the stress on industry. It is common now to see electricity company representatives displaying solar panels in shopping malls, part of the massive education and promotion scheme in part underwritten by the national government.

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