The closure of Japan’s last working nuclear reactor – the third reactor at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido prefecture in the country’s north – took place over the weekend as part of the nationwide safety drive imposed after the March 2011 tsunami-triggered nuclear disaster in Fukushima. As of early Sunday morning, all of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors have now been taken offline, leaving the country – once the world’s third-biggest user of atomic energy – with no nuclear-derived power for the first time since 1970. The Guardian reports that the occasion was marked by hundreds of people marching through Tokyo to celebrate what they hope will be the end of nuclear power in Japan. The reactors have been shut down for routine maintenance and must withstand tests against earthquakes and tsunamis. Local authorities must then give their consent for the plants to restart. The first reactors in line to be considered for reactivation by the government are at Kansai Electric Power’s Ohi nuclear plant. Japan’s trade minister Yukio Edano, and three others, have been trying to win public backing to restart the reactors to help ease expected power shortages of nearly 20 per cent in the summer, but they are struggling to win public support, says The Guardian.
Reuters reports that the Japanese government hopes to come up with an estimate by mid-May of expected power shortages this summer, and then aims to produce a plan to conserve energy that could include compulsory curbs on use of power. The country got through the last summer without any blackouts by imposing voluntary curbs on power use, says Reuters; factories operated at night and during weekends to reduce stress on the country’s power grids, and many big companies are preparing to take similar steps this year, while some plan to generate power themselves. Political analysts say that the setting of a long-term energy policy or a clear timeframe for restarting the plants will take time given strong public opposition and a divided parliament that has paralysed policy-making.
Solar wrap: First Solar, SunPower, Centrotherm
Global PV manufacturer First Solar fell to a record low last week after reporting a $401 million restructuring charge related to firing 30 per cent of its workforce. Bloomberg reports that the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar panels fell 6.3 per cent to $US16.94 at the close in New York, the lowest since going public in November 2006. The shares have declined 50 per cent this year. The Arizona-based company also reported a first-quarter net loss of $US449.4 million, or $5.20 a share. But on a positive note, it also raised its 2012 earning forecast, due to cost savings it expects to arise from the staff cuts.
Bloomberg reports that First Solar and fellow US solar giant SunPower are both seeking to streamline operations after increasing competition from China saw prices for solar panels fall 49 per cent in the past year, while waning government support in Europe slowed demand. “This quarter was difficult for the entire industry, but First Solar and SunPower are trying to right-size their operations and cut costs,” Bachman said in an interview. “This is not the market anyone was expecting a few years ago but some painful restructuring might help you survive.”
But another analyst, Theodore O’Neil of Wunderlich Securities in New York, told Bloomberg the companies’ efforts to adjust to slowing demand may not help. “Once you start restructuring in a business where everyone else is restructuring and margins are falling, you get stuck in a downward spiral,” O’Neil said in an interview. “Your move, designed to make you more competitive, only puts you on the same footing as your competitor once again. It’s a race to the bottom as every company lowers prices, restructures and lowers again in an agonizing, lather, rinse, repeat cycle.”
Meanwhile, the fallout from the sector appears to be spreading, with German maker of solar manufacturing equipment, Centrotherm Photovoltaics, falling to a record low in Frankfurt after posting a quarterly loss and predicting little improvement in the first half. Bloomberg reports that Centrotherm dropped 18 per cent to €5.994 at the close, after posting a €42.9 million loss before interest and tax in the first three months of 2012, compared with a profit of €17.7 million a year ago. Sales fell by half to €82.5 million, the company said in a statement. “The numbers are extremely weak and disappointing, and that’s reflected in the share movement,” Erkan Aycicek, an analyst with Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg, said by phone today.
Smooth sailing for some
A catamaran sporting 38,000 solar cells has completed the first round-the world voyage fueled only by the sun. Bloomberg reports that the PlanetSolar vessel – SS Turanor – pulled into Monte Carlo, Monaco, on Friday afternoon, ending a 60,006km journey that took in 28 countries over 585 days. The catamaran’s roof is covered with SunPower panels that extend like wings over its hulls, powering six blocks of lithium-ion batteries. The voyage aimed to demonstrate the availability of market-ready fossil fuel-free, low-emission alternatives other than sails to power ships across the sea. Shipping accounts for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gases, according to the WWF and Oxfam groups. Monaco’s Prince Albert II was scheduled to board the vessel on the weekend, as part of a three-day celebration, including a solar light show powered by the boats’ batteries, according to a PlanetSolar statement.