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The Land of the Rising Sun Cells
By Catherine Pawasarat

Ultimately, the source for most of the energy we consume in our daily lives is the sun. As fossil fuels, the oil, gas and coal we burn are the remnants of photosynthetic processes that occurred millions of years ago. But of late in Japan, the drive to have one’s own direct tap into all this energy has grown apace, with tens of thousands of Japanese already reliant on solar power for many of their domestic needs. 

In 1994 the Japanese government launched a subsidies program for home solar-power systems. Between fiscal 1994 and 2000, more than 52,000 households had taken advantage of the grants, with the number of applicants increasing by leaps and bounds: in 2001, nearly 30,000 households successfully applied. The same government program also granted major research and development subsidies to private companies working on commercializing solar power. 

At 80 percent, private homes make up the lion’s share of the Japanese market for photovoltaics – the cells in solar panels that actually convert the sunlight into electricity. In 1993, before subsidies were available, installing a 1-kilowatt solar panel cost \3.7 million. “Last year it cost about \740 thousand, around one-fifth the earlier price,” offers Tsutomu Okudo in the New Energy Measures section of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “Thanks to the subsidies, companies could sell more solar power systems, which brought the prices down.” 

As to why the Japanese government has been so keen to laze trails in support of solar power, Hiroyuki Matsumoto, a consumer-electronics analyst at Kokusai Securities in Tokyo, believes the answer lies in the country’s energy resources. “Since Japan imports 99 percent of its oil, energy and environmental problems are an especially sensitive issue here,” observes Matsumoto. For this reason, Japan has an advantage in its drive towards practical implementation of alternative energy technologies.” 

The combination of government backing, corporate initiative and consumer enthusiasm has propelled Japan to the forefront of solar power technology worldwide. Of the top ten manufacturers of photovoltaics, four are Japanese -- Sharp, Kyocera, Sanyo and Mitsubishi Electric. 

Since April 2001, laws require the national government to give priority to environmentally-friendly products, including solar-power systems, when making new purchases. 

At present the average Japanese home solar-power system generates 3 kilowatts of energy (a 4-kilowatt system could supply all the power needs for a family of four) and costs about \2 million. “It may be reduced to just half this by 2010,” speculates Koji Maekawa, corporate communications chief for the Osaka-based Sharp Corporation, the world’s top maker of photovoltaics. 

Sharp and other manufacturers are racing to replace the costly silicon used to make photovoltaics with a more economical and practical organic material, while maintaining or improving on the standard conversion rate from sunlight to electricity of 10 percent of more. Still in the R&D stage, Sharp’s next-generation solar photovoltaics have a conversions rate of 7.5 percent. Sharp hopes to increase this to 12 percent within the next two years and make the panels commercially available by 2010. 

In the meantime, manufacturers are adapting their present solar-panel designs to accommodate differently shaped roofs, and capture the maximum amount of sunlight possible. Aesthetics are also getting more attention, with sleeker-looking panel attachments or panels built flush against the line of a new roof.

Over time, the amount of subsidies available to each household has decreased, though the total amount of subsidies is on the rise. “In 2001 the amount available in subsidies was \120,000 per kilowatt, but this year that has dropped to \100,00,” according Toshiaki Hayashi, an engineer at EcoTech, an alternative energy consultancy. 

While industry and consumers alike would prefer to have more subsidies available, the cutbacks point less to a lack of funds than to a maturation of the market. The fledgling solar cell market is getting closer to leaving the cozy nest of government subsidies, and is growing increasingly dependent instead on natural market mechanisms. Japan’s solar-power industry looks as though it is in for some sunny days.


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