Japan: a beacon for weary solar makers

Mount Fuji

Mount FujiAs predicted, the Fukushima nuclear disaster kicked off a new solar renaissance in Japan. Large-scale solar projects in the country are materializing, and solar companies everywhere are making sure their Japan strategy is in place.

SunPower just extended its sales agreement with Japanese electronics giant Toshiba through 2018 and expects to deliver over 100MW of solar panels during that time. The deal is a big win for the San Jose company now, as it can continue to count on a Japanese partner to help market its gear.

Toshiba began selling SunPower’s products in 2010. SunPower, which is known for making and selling the most efficient silicon solar panel, also found a new customer in Japanese integrator Kubokura Densetsu, which plans to install 540 KW of SunPower’s solar panels on leased rooftops in the Kanagawa Prefecture.

Meanwhile, Germany-based SolarWorld has set up a sales office in Tokyo. Solar Frontier, which noted its pedigree as a Japanese solar manufacturer in a press release this week, announced it had inked a deal to ship 14.1 MW of its solar panels to Mitsui, which plans to use them for two projects. Last month, Solar Frontier won a deal with Aikawa Press Industry , which plans to use Solar Frontier’s panels for a 1.8 MW project next to its factory.

A clean power boom

Clearly the Japanese market is taking off. It presents hope for many solar manufacturers who are seeing lowering demand in their key markets such as Germany and experiencing heavy losses in the past two years because of a glut of solar panels in the global market.

The nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011 has made renewable energy such as solar a safer alternative in the country. Japanese residents certainly are not feeling much love for nuclear even if they still need power plants that can generate electricity around the clock. The central government began running an incentive program in July that guarantees premium prices that utilities must pay for renewable electricity such as solar, wind and geothermal. It’s a similar type of incentive that has made Germany the world’s largest solar energy producing country.

The incentive program is set to support larger solar power project development rather than residential rooftop installations. About 1.5 GW of solar power projects qualified for the incentives, and that already made up about 60 percent of projects that the Japanese government thought it would review and approve between July 2012 and March 2013, said NPD SolarBuzz. Over half of 1.5 GW worth of projects are over 1 MW in size.

The program also supports the deployment of energy storage systems, which can pair with solar panels to ensure a longer and steadier supply of electricity throughout the day. San Francisco-based Energy storage software startup GELI is targeting the Japanese market.

Long time brewing

The rush to develop projects began long before the incentive program was in place. The summer after Fukushima, the Japanese government began drafting regulations to support alternative power generation while figuring out what to do with the country’s 54 nuclear reactors, over half of which were shut down for inspections. That gave way to a flurry of announcements by Japanese banks, power project developers and manufacturers to propose a bunch of large-scale projects (we’ve got a list here).

Solar Frontier in Niigata

Non-Japanese companies from China, the U.S. and Europe also began plotting their entry into Japan, which historically was big on using domestic manufacturers. China-based Yingli Green Energy set up a Japanese subsidiary earlier this year. Canadian Solar, which runs factories in China, went a step further and announced in May that it would set up a solar panel factory in Japan. Suntech Power bought a Japanese solar panel maker in 2006 and saw its sales in that market grow from 2009 through 2011, according to its annual report.

While the Japanese market has only begun to boom, some analysts already wonder how long it will last. Markets driven by government incentives could shrink significantly in less than a year when policies shift to tighten spending. Spain proved that case and sent many manufacturers scrambling for new markets.

First Solar is working on opening up markets in which government subsidies won’t play a big role, but that effort will take a while to produce good results. The company certainly isn’t turning away from markets that rely on government intervention to grow. First Solar has been keen to land in China, and earlier this week announced its first demonstration project there.

Photo courtesy of tamakisono via Flickr and Solar Frontier

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