Sharp Battles to Hold Lead in Solar Race

For all the chatter about Chinese solar stocks, Japan has long been the world’s leading producer of photovoltaics. Of course, given the number of investments Chinese companies are making in capacity, they are likely to overtake Japan in a few years. But for now, Japan has the biggest share, thanks in large part to Sharp.

Sharp is off the radar of many American and European investors. Its shares trade in Tokyo, with only a highly illiquid ADR trading over the counter in the U.S. But the company has been developing solar cells since 1961. Five years later, it boasted the then largest-ever solar installation, a 225-watt lighthouse on Ogami Island. Puny by today’s standards but boy, was it a big deal at the time.


Now Sharp is laying plans to maintain (or regain, depending on who you ask: Germany’s Q-Cells says it surpassed Sharp last year) its lead as the top producer of solar cells. The company manufactured about a gigawatt’s worth in 2007, and aims to increase it by a factor of six over the next several years. China’s Suntech and First Solar are expanding quickly as well.

Sharp is planning to open a new plant in Osaka in two years, and will start building more production facilities overseas, a Sharp executive told Reuters this week.

Another recent Reuters report noted that Sharp is broadening its solar offerings by developing with two other Japanese companies large lithium-ion batteries that can store solar energy to power homes at night and on cloudy days.

“With large lithium-ion batteries, with up to 40 times the storage capacity of existing smaller batteries used in mobile phones and laptop computers, homes can have power even when the sun is not out…”

Japan is also working on beefing up the demand side of the solar market. Last month, the Japanese government vowed to ensure that 30 percent of Japanese homes have solar panels installed by 2030, a goal that would raise the country’s solar capacity 30 times over.

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