Solar and renewable energy market participants and observers have been expecting a boom in investment and demand in Japan in the wake of the Japanese government’s July introduction of a renewable energy feed-in tariff (FiT) program, which includes a higher than expected rate schedule for solar power installations.
That boom’s beginning to materialise, as a growing roster of Japanese and overseas-headquartered businesses from within and outside the solar/renewable energy space announce plans to enter and ramp up their investments and activities.
Japanese home improvement company West Holdings Corp. has launched a strategic 100-billion-yen (~$1.27-billion) investment program that entails a newly formed, special purpose company building 250 solar power plants with a combined generating capacity of some 500 MW, Bloomberg has reported. The solar power plant investment program is just the latest in a string of solar energy investment initiatives the company has announced over the past year or so.
A mega-solar market in Japan?
West Holdings’ Japan Mega Solar Power Co., which was formed in June, will build the 250 solar power plants over a five-year period. Twelve others are investing in the company, including finance and leasing company Orix Corp., which recently announced its own huge solar power investment initiative. Others include China’s largest solar PV cell manufacturer, JA Solar Holdings Co., and South Korea’s LS Industrial Systems, according to Bloomberg’s report.
JA Solar and LS Industrial will be Japan Mega Solar Power’s preferred suppliers of solar PV panels, senior managing director Toshihisa Nagashima told Bloomberg.
West Holdings began building its presence in Japan’s solar energy sector well in advance of the government’s renewable energy FiT initiative. Recognizing the business opportunity early, management has turned the home improvement company into the largest provider of residential solar PV systems in the country.
In April 2011, a West Holdings-Super Tools joint venture announced an exclusive distribution agent agreement with solar PV panel manufacturer Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd., another of China’s largest solar cell and panel providers.
This past February, West Holding and Chinese Powerway Renewable Energy announced they were partnering in building a 2-MW solar PV plant. Powerway is to install mounting structures for West Holdings’ 80-MW, 2012 solar power project pipeline, it was announced at the time. That spans more than 40 solar power farms valued at $12 million.
New feed-in tariff scheme spurs solar power investment
At this stage, it’s uncertain just how much in the way of clean, renewable solar power Japan Mega Solar’s investment program, as well as that of others who have announced they’re investing in the sector, will add to Japan’s power generating capacity. The Japanese government set the solar power tariff rate at a higher than expected 42 yen (~$0.53) per kilowatt-hour for 20 years in July, but that’s subject to annual review. That’s about three times the per-kilowatt rate industrial consumers paid for electricity in the 12 month-period that ended in March, Bloomberg notes.
Japan’s renewable energy FiT requires utilities to pay producers above-market rates for solar and other qualifying forms of renewable power. The additional costs can be passed on to their customers.
As in power markets around the world, the drive to make greater use of clean, renewable energy sources poses threats and opportunities for well-entrenched utility providers. Distributed power generation, such as that afforded by solar PV and thermal systems, threatens their control over power supplies, while at the same time affording them new market opportunities.
The disruption new clean energy technologies and government renewable energy incentives are causing is evident now in Japan, which shuttered its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Anti-nuclear power activists continue to pressure the government to announce a definitive plan to phase out nuclear power in Japan.
Nuclear power had been a national strategic priority for the Japanese government since 1973. Government incentives to industrial conglomerates resulted in Japan relying on nuclear power for some 20% of its electricity generation when the Fukushima tsunami and the nuclear power plant disaster occurred at Tokyo Electric Power’s nuclear plant. Japan’s installed nuclear power plant capacity totaled 49 GW from 54 nuclear power plants up until then.
The Japanese government has since shifted its energy policy to focus on developing renewable energy resources. The solar and renewable energy FiT, along with related clean energy initiatives, is expected to stimulate some $9.6 billion of clean energy investment, and the addition of an estimated 3.2 GW of clean power on to Japan’s grid network.
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