SOLAR ENERGY IN JAPAN: TECHNOLOGY, COMPANIES AND POWER PLANTS

SOLAR ENERGY IN JAPAN

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Japan was the largest producer of solar energy until 2004. For a while Japan generated half the world’s solar power and supported a market worth $1 billion. In 2005 it was surpassed by Germany. In 2008 Japan slipped to No. 3 in solar capacity with 1.97 million kilowatts behind Germany and Spain with 5.4 million kilowatts and 2.3 million kilowatts respectively. According to Reuters solar capacity in Japan has risen to more than 3,500 megawatts as of early 2012, helped by government subsidies for solar panels on homes, though it meets less than 1 percent of the nation's power demand and the capacity is less than a quarter that of Germany.

Japan is one of the world’s largest markets in the world for solar energy. Solar panels are advertised on television. The government provided generous subsidies for solar homes. Entire communities with 100 or so houses are built with the latest solar technology. The capacity of solar panels in Japan increased from 20 megawatts in 1994 to 250 megawatts in 2002. Instillation between 1994 and 2004 increased 40 fold from 7,000 kilowatts to 270,000 kilowatts. In that time the government gave out $1 billion in rebates to people who put photovoltaic solar panels on their roofs. The solar energy market is expected to increase to $4 billion by 2010.
In January 2009, the government reintroduced a system of subsidies for solar power generation, and that same year the volume of solar cell shipments within Japan began to increase.

Solar power garnered attention as an energy source that could help stop global warming long before the March 11 disaster. However, the ongoing nuclear crisis has raised its profile further. A so-called sunrise plan calls for installing solar panels at as many buildings and houses as possible. According to an energy plan approved in June 2010 the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar power and wind power, would be increased to 20 percent by 2030.

The cost of solar-generated electricity is about ¥46 per kilowatt hour---about eight times more than with coal or atomic power but costs of solar power systems have dropped about 80 percent in the past decade. The current cost to generate nuclear power is 5 yen to 6 yen per kilowatt-hour while thermal power costs 7 yen to 8 yen per kilowatt-hour.

High Costs and Inefficiencies of Solar Energy

Many people, including government officials, hold the view that establishing solar power as the nation's primary source of power will prove difficult. The amount of power generated is dependent on weather conditions and the yearly operating rate of current solar panels is said to be as little as about 10 percent. Producing solar power has been estimated to cost five times more than thermal power; consequently, widespread solar power generation will likely cause electricity charges to rise.

To generate 1 million kilowatts of solar power, which is the output of one nuclear reactor, it would be necessary to occupy about 60 square kilometers of land--equivalent to the area inside Tokyo's JR Yamanote Line. Securing areas this size in a nation where available land is already sparse is a key problem that will need addressing.

In the case of photovoltaic generation, an area about the size of that encircled by the Yamanote Line of East Japan Railway Co. in central Tokyo--or about 65 square kilometers--would need to be covered with solar panels to generate the amount of energy equivalent to that produced by one nuclear reactor. This low "power generating density" pushes up the cost.

The relatively unstable amount of power generated with these natural resources also makes the use of renewable resources less popular. For instance, the cost of solar-generated power is nearly 10 times higher than that of nuclear power. A solar energy system cannot generate power at night, and its output drops significantly even in the daytime if it becomes cloudy. The utilization rate remains just 12 percent, which means that it can generate electricity only for about 1-1/2 months out of a year.

Solar Panel Production in Japan

Japan once led the world in solar panel production. Solar panels efficiently convert sunlight to electricity but Japan's production has since been outstripped by U.S. and Chinese manufacturers. However, growth in solar cell production began to grow again when the Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry (METI) introduced a new regime in autumn 2009 in which power companies started purchasing excess solar electricity from households.

Electric power operators will profit more by procuring solar panels at a lower cost. Using “China-made panels that cost about 20 to 30 percent less than domestic panels will be advantageous," a market official said.

The national government offers a subsidy of about $750 per kilowatt to residents for installing solar panels on their houses. On top of that Tokyo residents are given an additional $1,070 per kilowatt. A typical solar system produces about four kilowatts. Incentives are also offered to solar businesses.

Japanese Solar Collectors and Devices

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Sharp, the leader in solar battery production, plans to increase its current production capacity by 20 percent by March 2011. Other electronic companies that are making solar batteries have similar plans.

As of 2010 Sharp had produced solar cells with the a solar energy conversion efficient of 35.8 si, the world’s highest. Kyocera has developed solar panels that can be attached to the roof of a car, and Toshiba markets solar power generators for home use.

In Tokyo a solar-powered bicycle parking lot was set up that uses energy collected from its system to charge electric bicycles that can be rented for ¥300 a day. Japanese nongovernmental organizations have sent lanterns that are charged by solar collectors to impoverished areas that lack electricity.

Solar cells are not only the only way solar energy and light is being harnessed. The Mitnatomirai Center building in Tokyo has a primary and secondary system of mirrors that bring sun light to a central shaft of the 18-story building and distribute it to the bottom floor lobby and other rooms in the building.

A solar car built by Tokai University has the remarkable ability to transform 97 percent of the sunlight it absorbs into power that propels the car forward. The car can cruise along at 100 kph using only sunlight and theoretically reach speeds of 160 kph if its sunlight and battery are used simultaneously to propel the vehicle.

Solar Payback Systems

Under a new system was set up by METI in November 2009 electric companies are required to buy surplus electric power from solar-equipped households for ¥48 per kilowatt--- double the previous price. That price was lowered to ¥42 per kilowatt in 2011 due to lower solar panel prices.

The Japanese scheme of paying more back per unit for solar-generated power greatly benefits solar investment by households. One homeowner that installed a three-kilowatt hour solar photovoltaic system said her August electricity bill was reduced from ¥20,000 to ¥5,000 with a ¥2,000 credit paid back for unused solar electricity.

If the purchase price is set at a high level, the number of households and companies that produce electricity is expected to increase, but at the same time it will significantly increase the burden on the public and the industrial sector. At current prices under the system household monthly electricity bill is expected to rise by only around 200 yen over 10 years. Conversely, the Japan Iron and Steel Foundation estimates the annual increased burden for the industrial sector will reach up to 126 billion yen. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , January 21, 2011]

As solar power generation becomes more common, electric utilities will need a large number of power-converting batteries to ensure a stable supply of electricity because of major differences in the volume of electrical power generated between day and night. "At least more than 1 trillion yen of infrastructure investment is necessary and we'll have to pass this cost [onto consumers] via electricity bills," a senior official of an electric company said. [Ibid]

New Solar Technology in Japan

Tetsu Joko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “A new solar plant “in Yokohama is made up of 800 mirrors--each of them about 50 centimeters wide--used for solar power generation. The mirrors change their angle automatically as the sun moves to concentrate sunlight on a single receiver and thereby more efficiently generate electricity. The control system, HyperHelios, was developed by JFE Engineering Corp. [Source: Tetsu Joko, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 2011]

“JFE Engineering said it needs more than about 15,000 square meters of mirrors to produce 1,000 kilowatts of electricity, based on best-case calculations, at the HyperHelios facility. According to the company, HyperHelios' generation efficiency is better than conventional solar panels. However, to produce the same amount of electricity the Fukushima plant produced before the crisis, JFE Engineering would need an area more than 10 times the size of the Fukushima plant. [Ibid]

“A lens developed by Kuraray Corp. is also drawing attention in energy circles. According to Kuraray, it is made of special acrylic plates, and is very durable against rain, wind and sunlight. Flat and lighter than ordinary spherical lenses, Kuraray's lens is expected to reduce production costs. The company said it began mass production in spring, 2012. I recently visited Kuraray's Kashima office in Kamisu, Ibaraki Prefecture, where developers Yoshinori Osanai, 35, and Koji Abe, 35, each easily hoisted a lens to demonstrate how light it was. "Be careful! If this lens is aimed properly, it can singe asphalt," Osanai warned. [Ibid]

Expressway companies are mulling over the idea of renting out unused space along the highways for solar power generation. Solar power companies would rent the space and set up solar collectors. Some of the power would be used to power lighting along the highways. The rest would be sent to electricity power companies.

Solar Power from External Walls

In January 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp. plans to sell a new type of external building material that generates power from sunlight beginning in fiscal 2013. Unlike conventional solar panels, whose installation sites are limited to roofs and other specific places, the new material can be used for walls of buildings and other structures in sunny locations. The new material will likely boost the spread of renewable energy. If it is used for skyscraper walls, just one or two buildings could produce electricity equal to that generated at a large-scale solar power plant, according to experts. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 4, 2012]

“The new material has been developed thanks to the company's creation of solar cells that use organic semiconductors made from petroleum and other materials instead of the silicon semiconductors currently in use. The new cell is thinner and lighter than current panel-type cells. The cells' power generation capability is about 80 watts per square meter, and their efficiency in converting solar energy to electricity is about 11 percent, a level sufficient for practical use. For comparison, conventional solar panels have an efficiency of 14 percent to 15 percent. [Ibid]

“Organic solar cells are easier to manufacture than current solar panels that use heavy base materials such as glass. Experts said the production cost of the new cells could be as low as one-tenth of the panels. The new cells can be used not only for walls but also on small roofs or parking lots where large conventional panels are difficult to install. The new cells also have strong earthquake resistance. The company also plans to use the cells in the bodies of electric vehicles and in curtains. [Ibid]

“Conventional external wall materials that generate power using silicon semiconductors are costly and their efficiency in converting solar energy to electricity is low. As Mitsubishi Chemical sells wall materials in more than 100 countries and territories, the company expects the new material to promote the broad use of solar power. [Ibid]

Solar Energy and Homes in Japan

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Across Japan you see homes and even some large buildings with solar panels. As of late 2010 there were 137,000 homes in Japan with solar panels, up from 73,000 in 2005. Sales have risen and fallen depending on the availability of subsidies for having them. Sales started to take off in the late 1990s when the subsidies were introduced by fell off when the system ended but then picked up again in 2009 when a new subsidy system was introduced. At that time about 122,000 homes had solar devises. Many local governments also offer solar subsidies. As of 2003, around 120,000 homes used solar energy. Soon the government hopes 1 million homes will have solar power and generate 4.82 million kilowatts of electricity from solar energy.

One homeowner who use solar panels on her home to generate most of her electricity and cut her electricity bill by 17 percent told the New York Times, “We feel our roof panels are contributing to a great cause. And its better to use the sunshine right above your head than depend on the electricity company.”

In 2008, a typical solar power generation system for a house sold around for around $20,000, 25 percent more than in the United States. The government hopes to halve the price by 2011. Japan wants to increase solar generation of electricity level in 2008 by 10 times by 2020 and 40 times by 2030. As prices for solar technology drops, more and more people are using it. Solar-powered houses and even solar-powered factories are becoming more common in Japan.

In the 1990s the government granted a subsidy of ¥900,000 per kilowatt, igniting a boom in solar use. In 2005, the subsidy was reduced to ¥20,000 per kilowatt and after that eliminated. The policy brought a halt to solar power in Japan. Subsidies that existed in 2008 were on the local level. They ranged between $200 and $10,000 for solar-powered electricity generator. Typically a family bought a solar generator for around $25,000, paying $18,000 themselves and the government paying $7000.
Japan is expected to reintroduce national solar subsidies soon. It also expected to create incentives for power companies to purchase solar-generated electricity. The government provides companies with about $25 million a year develop solar energy.

In some places conflicts have arisen over tall buildings blocking out sun that can be picked up with solar panels. The Yomiuri Shimbun described one 61-year-old homeowner in Setagawa ward in Tokyo who has just bought a solar panel system only to find much of the sunlight reaching her house would be blocked by a new condominium going up nearby.

In September 2011, Kyodo reported, Daiwa House Industry Co. said it will build a condominium equipped with the nation's largest-level solar power generation system with a capacity of 170 kilowatts in Suita, Osaka Prefecture. A large number of solar cells will be installed on the roof of the condo to supply solar-generated power to common spaces and 38 of the 351 units.According to Daiwa House, solar-powered units can lower electricity costs by around 65 percent.Construction of the condo will commence Friday in the Senri New Town area and will be completed in 2013. Prices are expected to be set at the 40 million yen level for the 38 solar-powered units ranging in size from three to four bedrooms. [Source: Kyodo, Mainichi Shimbun, September 27, 2011]

High-Pressure Solar Energy Salesmen

In July 2011, Atsuki Kira wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Amid the power shortage following the Great East Japan Earthquake, there has been an upsurge in cases of households being forced to buy overly expensive solar power generation systems by high-pressure salesmanship. Some strong-arm sales representatives have reportedly forced consumers to sign a contract on the day of the rep's first visit. Others have reportedly stayed put in the genkan entry halls of homes, refusing to leave for several hours.” [Source: July 27, 2011]

A 70-year-old man living in the Tokai region signed a contract for ¥3.3 million solar power system, including installation, after a salesman came to his house. "We've been unable to run our business normally due to damage to our facilities in the March disaster, so we'll offer you the system at a bargain price--so please buy one," the salesman said. But later, the man checked the going rate for such systems on the Internet and found the same product he signed up to buy was sold for ¥2 million yen.

According to the consumer affairs center there were 756 consumer complaints related to solar power systems from April 1 to July 25, or 181 more than the same period last year. About 80 percent of the cases involved unhappiness with door-to-door sales.

The center quoted a man in his 20s living in the southern Kanto region as saying: "I ended up signing the contract as the salesman stayed put at my house for four hours. It cost as much as 2.8 million yen, so I want to have it canceled." A housewife in her 30s in the Chugoku region also wondered if she had been duped."I signed the contract because the salesman told me I can have a system installed even on the north side of the house that doesn't get much sunshine. But that doesn't sound reasonable, does it?" she asked the center.

Solar Energy and Japanese Companies

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Sanyo solar cells
In the early 2000s Japan has 25 percent market share of solar energy production worldwide. The solar power industry may generate $100 billion worth of economic benefits in 2020.

Japan is one of the world’s leading producer of solar panels. Sharp, Kyocera, Honda, Mitsubishi and Sanyo are the industry leaders. It is hoped that they can make solar power more useful and affordable with new devices. Japan is already perfected paper thin solar cells.
Kyocera is the world’s 4th largest solar cell maker. In November 2008, it announced plans to build a new plant to make solar cells and is currently trying to double the efficiency of its cells over the next five years. In January 2009, Toshiba said that it was going to enter the solar photo voltaic system business.

Sanyo is a major maker of solar cells. It Sanyo plans to open a solar cell plant in Osaka in 2010 at a cost of ¥6 billion and has plans for an annual production of 200 megawatts per year, the company’s HIT (Hterrojunction with intrinsic thin layers) boats improved efficiency in conversion of sunlight into electricity. Sanyo is also a leader in making solar modules for automobiles. Panasonic plans to invest over $1 billion in its solar business over six years between 2010 and 2016. The company hopes its merger with Sanyo will help it become one of Japan’s top three solar panel producers.

Honda began mass producing solar cells from 2007. The company says it hopes to earn between ¥5 billion and ¥8 billion from the sales of the cells. Honda makes solar car. See Honda.

Sekisui Chemical Co. makes solar lighting system that use fiber optic cable to distribute sunlight used for lighting throughout a building. The system is still expensive, costing around $8,000 per house. Showa Shell, a major oil distributor, wants to expand into solar power. It is planning on building one of the world’s largest factories for producing solar panels at a cost of ¥100 billion.

Companies like Sharp, Kyocera, NGK and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are considering forming an alliance to create small power stations and batteries capable of storing energy for large-scale solar-power, electricity-generating plants. Mitsubishi is developing a compressed air solar power plant. It uses mirrors to direct sunlight to a heat-receiving unit using the heat to compress air which powers a turbine and generator. Existing methods used steam to operate the turbines. The Mitsubishi method is simpler and requires no water and is 20 to 30 percent cheaper.

Entering the solar power generation business is easy once land and electricity buyers been secured. Amid concerns over power shortages as a result of the Fukushima No. 1 crisis, the enactment of special legislation to oblige power companies to purchase power generated by renewable energy sources will increase the profitability of the solar power industry. For local governments, solar power could be a means to reinvigorate their economies and promote the use of idle land. Thirty-six prefectures are expected to participate in the council.

Sharp and Solar Energy

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Sharp solar cells
Sharp is world’s largest maker of solar battery systems. It produces 4 million kW a year.

In July 2006, Sharp introduced solar panels that it said were twice as effective as solar panels produced before that time. Much of the success is die to the ability of the panels to change their angles during the day and over the course of a year to get the optimal amount of light from the sun. The system has an power-generating efficiency of 36 percent compared to 15 and 20 percent for previous systems.

Kansai Eclectic Power Company and Sharp plan to build one of the world’s largest solar power plants near Osaka to provide power for homes and factories. The plant is expected to produce 28 megawatts, enough to provide electricity of about 8,000 households. The plant will be built on a 20 hectare site. Construction is planned to begin in 2009.

In 1959 Sharp founder Tokuji Hayakawa, proposed making a solar battery which he called “the next big technological breakthrough after television.” One of the first major applications of Sharp solar technology was on lighted buoys at sea that previously used oil or gas and needed to periodically be refilled, a costly process. In 1976, Sharp introduced the first solar-powered calculators.

Sharp plans to raise its output of thin film solar cells. There are two kinds of solar cells: thin-film and crystalline silicon cells. The former can be made with 99 percent less silicon. These days there is a worldwide silicon shortage, and prices for the material are high. Sharp also produces lithium ion batteries for solar systems that can store electricity in the day for use at night.

Sharp is active in providing solar technology to developing countries such as Mongolia, where generating electricity by other means in remote areas is very expensive. In developed countries like Germany it has been active in turning unproductive wheat farms into solar farms by placing solar panels on land formally occupied by crops. In the Napa Valley in California solar cells have been floated on an idle pond to produce electricity for a winery.

Today Sharp solar panels can be found in the CIS Tower in Manchester, England, where 7200 modules produce 183,000 kW a year; the Salzberg Airport in Austria; and the Bruchwegstadion in Mainz Germany. The new Sharp LCD plant in Sakai is not only produced thin films for LCDs it will also make thin films for solar cells covering the plant’s roof.

Solar-Powered Plants and Large Scale Production in Japan

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In February 2009, Tohuku Electric announced it would build two mega solar 1,500- to 2,000-kilowatt power plants in Aomori and Miyagi Prefectures that are slated to begin operation in 2012 with plans for megasolar plants capable of generating 10,000 kilowatts ready in 2020. In May 2009, Yokohama announced it would put solar panels on 200 city schools.

Solar-powered generation systems have been installed at water filtration plants in Gose, Nara Prefecture and Kamigorisho in Hyogo Prefecture. The one in Hyogo is the largest in Japan. It has 4,217 solar panels. On sunny summer days it gets enough electricity from these to meet all of its energy needs. The one in Gose is the second largest. It is comprised of 4,790 1.3-mete wide panels that to provide about 7 percent of the plants energy needs, 11.5 million kilowatts, costing ¥138 million. .

In January 2012, Kyodo, A solar power plant with an output capacity of 10 MW, which is enough to supply power to around 3,400 homes, began operations in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture. The Komekurayama solar power station, built by TEPCO on a 12.5 hectare site, is one of the largest photovoltaic power plants in Japan. Landlocked Yamanashi Prefecture, which enjoys relatively long hours of sunshine, is trying to attract establishment of solar power plants in the region. The site is being leased free of charge by the Yamanashi Prefectural government. In addition to the one in Kofu, other projects are in progress in the cities of Kai and Nirasaki. TEPCO is the operator of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. [Source: Kyodo, January 27, 2012]

According to the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, large-scale solar power plants operated by 10 domestic electric power companies are expected to generate a total of about 140,000 kilowatts of electricity in fiscal 2020. To reach these goals the Japanese government is putting increased pressure on electric power companies to use new energy resources.

An operation to install solar power plants around Ukishima and Ogishima in Kawasaki on the banks of Tokyo Bay facing Haneda Airport is already under way, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. In a joint project by the Kawasaki municipal government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plants will cover an area of about 34 hectares, or seven times the size of Tokyo Dome. The power plants, expected to start operating in fiscal 2011, will generate a total of 20,000 kilowatts of electricity, equivalent to the amount of electricity used at about 5,900 households in a year. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , January 21, 2011]

Proposed Solar Plants in Japan

Major domestic companies are planning or considering entry into the business of so-called mega solar power plants, a move that may accelerate the expansion of the nation's renewable energy industry. Mitsui & Co. is currently planning to build large-scale solar power plants in areas hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The trading giant not only intends to support reconstruction efforts in those areas, but also turn renewable energy into one of its core businesses. Mitsui is considering installing solar panels on idle land in several sites across the Tohoku region, with total power generation capacity expected to be about 100,000 kilowatts. The firm hopes to improve profitability by building solar plants with generation capacities far exceeding those of current plants, which stand between 1,000 kilowatts to tens of thousands of kilowatts.

Mitsui already operates a solar power plant in Spain, with an output capacity of about 1,500 kilowatts. Domestically, Mitsui and Tokyo Electric Power Co. have launched a joint business venture to supply solar power to a cargo terminal at Haneda Airport.Mitsui also plans to operate solar power plants in locations other than the disaster-hit areas. In the mid- to long-term, the company intends to expand its combined renewable energy sources, mainly solar power both at home and abroad, by fivefold from the current 100,000 kilowatts. If it achieves this, Mitsui could become the nation's largest solar power generator after the electric utilities.

Other trading companies such as Mitsubishi Corp. and Sumitomo Corp. are also striving to make a full-scale entry into the solar power industry. Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K., which started operation of a solar power plant in Niigata in August, plans to make solar power generation one of its key businesses alongside the company's main oil business.

Mitsubishi Corp is in talks with Kumamoto Prefecture and other local governments to build Japan's first mega-solar power station. A major oil company, Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K., also is considering constructing a solar power plant at the site of an affiliated oil refinery the firm plans to close. Meanwhile, in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Kansai Electric Power Co. is now constructing one of the nation's largest solar power plants on a Sharp Corp. factory roof, capable of generating 28,000 kilowatts of electricity. Chubu Electric Power Co. also plans to construct a major solar power plant in Aichi Prefecture.

Outside Japan, mega solar farms are being constructed one after another. In the United States the operation of several large-scale plants, including in California and Nevada, will commence in coming years. In Thailand, a solar power plant with a maximum power output of 73,000 kilowatts is expected to start operating by the end of this year.

Kyocera, IHI, Mizuho to Build Large Solar Plants in Japan

Risa Maeda of Reuters wrote: “Electronics firm Kyocera Corp , heavy machinery maker IHI Corp and Mizuho Corporate Bank said they have agreed to launch Japan's biggest solar power project at a cost of $307 million. Their 70-megawatt plant will generate about 79,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year, enough for about 22,000 households, they said. [Source: Risa Maeda, Reuters, April 10, 2012]

“A special-purpose company (SPC) will be set up to build and run the new plant, with construction starting in July in Kagoshima city on the southern island of Kyushu. [Kyushu Electric Power Co is expected to buy the electricity generated. Four more Japanese companies have agreed to join in the project as shareholders of the SPC. [Ibid]

“March 2012, Kyodo reported: “The Kyoto Municipal Government said it has selected a Softbank Corp. unit and its two partners as contractors to build and operate a solar power plant in the ancient capital. SB Energy Corp., Kyocera Solar Corp. and Kyocera Communication Systems Co. plan to construct two photovoltaic power generators with a total annual generation capacity of about 4.2 megawatt-hours, enough to meet annual demand from about 1,000 households. The first of the two is scheduled to begin operating on July 2012 as Japan starts its feed-in tariff system, under which electric utilities will purchase all electricity generated by other firms and households from solar and other renewable energy sources. The Kyoto solar plant project is the first commercial deal for SB Energy, which plans to build solar plants at more than 10 locations in Japan. [Source: Kyodo, March 6, 2012]

Softbank Solar Power Plants

In July 2011, SoftBank Corp. announced plans to set up a "natural energy consultation council," tasked with coordinating with local governments to construct large-scale solar plants nationwide.SoftBank plans to start constructing solar power plants by the end of this year, with maximum power output per plant expected to stand at about 20,000 kilowatts.

In April 2012, Kyodo reported: “Softbank Corp. is planning to build what would be Japan's largest solar power plant in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, with an output capacity of at least 200,000 kilowatts, industry sources said. Softbank's subsidiary SB Energy Corp. is planning the photovoltaic power plant, thought to be larger than many overseas plants if completed, before Japan introduces a system in July in which power companies are obliged to purchase electricity generated by other firms and households from renewable energy sources such as solar power. [Source: Kyodo, April 4, 2012]

“The solar farm is being designed to have a maximum output capacity of 340,000 kw to cover some 100,000 households and SB Energy is negotiating with Hokkaido Electric Power Co. over electricity purchases through the so-called feed-in tariff system, according to the sources. The utility has responded that it can accept some 200,000 kw, based on the existing infrastructure for electricity delivery, they said. [Ibid]

“Softbank, the Tokyo-based mobile phone carrier, plans to install photovoltaic panels at a 480-hectare site on the waterfront of an industrial district in eastern Tomakomai on the country's northernmost main island, the sources said. The company announced in early March it was setting up solar power plants in Kyoto, Gunma and Tokushima prefectures. The plant in Tomakomai is far larger than the others, which have an output capacity of 4,200 kw, 2,400 kw and 5,600 kw, respectively. [Ibid]

“A solar plant project in Aichi Prefecture developed by Mitsui Chemicals Inc. and others, which will have a capacity of 50,000 kw, was considered the largest among existing plans in Japan before the project in Tomakomai. Softbank and Hokkaido Electric will finalize details of the schedule for construction, power generation capacity and the amount of electricity to be purchased when the government sets the purchasing price. If the price is set below 40 yen per 1 kilowatt-hour, which is said to be a profitable line of business, the company may face possible downsizing of the plant. [Ibid]

Miyagi City to Build Huge Solar Plant

In March 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The Iwanuma city government plans to build a mega solar power plant on farmland rendered useless by salt damage and subsidence as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The plant, which would be one of the largest of its kind in Japan, would generate 15,000 kilowatts of electricity. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 6, 2012]

“Construction is expected to cost more than 5 billion yen and the city hopes to start operating the plant in 2012. About 20 companies, including major business firms and electronic manufacturers, have expressed interest in the project. According to senior city officials, the solar plant's annual power generation would be about 18 million kilowatt-hours, sufficient to supply about 5,000 households. They hope the plant will help supply electricity needed to reconstruct devastated areas and create jobs. [Ibid]

“The planned construction site is on 30 hectares of land south of Sendai Airport and near the Iwanuma-Yanome industrial complex, about a kilometer from the coast. To convert the farmland for other uses, the city government will utilize the special reconstruction zone system. It also will seek an exemption or reduction in corporate and other taxes for companies taking part in the project. The generated electricity will be sold to Tohoku Electric Power Co. and may be supplied to Sendai Airport in an emergency. There is growing interest in renewable energy sources in disaster-hit areas, with Mitsui & Co., a major trading firm, having decided to enter the solar business. [Ibid]

Space-Based Solar Power

In the spring of 2010 a team of scientists from several organizations began tests on a space-based power generation technology using satellites. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported; “The technology would start by generating electricity from sunlight in space, convert the power into microwaves and then send it to Earth, the team said. The planned test will attempt to convert a strong electric current into microwaves and transmit them 10 meters away in a simulated outer space environment at Kyoto University.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 23, 2011]

“Space-based solar power generation, which is 10 times more efficient than earthbound generation, would be a major step forward in terms of fulfilling energy needs, as the strength of sunlight in space is about twice that on Earth, and there are four or five times the hours of sunlight due to the absence of clouds. The group comprises scientists from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mitsubishi Electric Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., IHI Corp. and Kyoto University. A successful test would likely accelerate the goal of putting a space-based power generation system into practical use by 2025.” [Ibid]

“Mitsubishi Electric has proposed what it calls the Solarbird project, in which 40 relatively small 200-meter solar power generating satellites would be launched. This could produce 1 million kilowatts of electricity, equivalent to a nuclear power plant. The Solarbird system would collect sunlight using reflecting mirrors fitted onto satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator. After the electricity is generated, it would be converted into microwaves and transmitted to Earth. The microwaves---to be sent as harmless radio waves---would be received at ground stations 3 kilometers in diameter and placed on the sea or in sunny desert areas, and then converted back into electricity.” [Ibid]

“The key to making the system practical hinges on the efficient conversion of electricity into microwaves. The experiment will be conducted in a room that does not reflect electromagnetic waves to mimic the conditions of space.If the team succeeds in converting a strong electrical current into microwaves and transmitting them about 10 meters, it will then start work on reducing the weight of the power generation equipment and improving the transmission technology. The team hopes to launch a trial satellite sometime after 2016. It is estimated that implementing a workable space-based solar power generation system will cost about 2 trillion yen. [Ibid]

Japanese Team Wins Australian Solar Car Race

A solar power vehicle developed by Honda that looked like an alien spacecraft with wheels won the forth World Solar Xhallenge in 1996 by traveling more than 3,000 kilometers across the Australian desert at an average speed of 90 kilometers per hour using only solar power. A one passenger solar car produced by Tokai University won the 2009 Global Green Challenge in Australia. Driven by former Dakar Rally champion Kenjiro Shinozuka, the car averaged 100.4 kph.

On October 2012, Reuters reported: “A team from Japan won a world solar car race through Australia's outback, after battling more than 3,000 km (1,800 miles) of remote highways, dodging kangaroos and other wildlife and avoiding a bushfire. Veolia World Solar Challenge race officials said the team from Tokai University, near Tokyo, finished the race from the northern city of Darwin to the southern city of Adelaide in around five days. The Nuon Solar Car Team from the Netherlands came second, while a U.S. team from the University of Michigan finished third. [Source: Reuters, October 20, 2011]

“Thirty-seven cars from 21 countries started off in Darwin, heading south and using only the power generated by the sun in the 11th running of the annual race. High-tech solar cars use public highways on the trek, with teams camping out by the road overnight as their cars run out of power after dark. Along the way, they dodge other traffic, as well as kangaroos, camels and other wildlife wandering the outback deserts. [Ibid]

“This year's race was made more dangerous by bushfires in the remote Northern Territory, which forced some cars to stop racing and camp out at a police roadblock as the fires crossed the highway, 300 km north of the central town of Alice Springs. One car from the Philippines burst into flames early in the race when its battery exploded. No team members were injured, the fire was extinguished and the car resumed the race with a replacement battery pack. [Ibid]

“The race is a favorite for university teams and researchers looking for new green sources of energy to fuel cars. Nuon's driver Javier Sint Jago said he had to avoid a bushfire, wallabies, cattle, sheep and lizards on his marathon drive, although the biggest challenge was to fight the strong winds which buffeted his 140 kg (300 lb) vehicle. "It was pretty rough. The side winds were 50 to 60 km an hour (30-40 mph), and can easily push you off the side," he said. "It was just so much concentration.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: TEPCO, Osaka Gas, Japan Nuclear Power Program, Ray Kinnane, Sanyo, Sharp

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated October 2012

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