Manila Bulletin

Sun setting on Japan’s solar energy boom


CHIBA, Japan (AFP) – The sun is setting on Japan's clean-energy boom, despite projects like a massive floating solar farm near Tokyo, as the government cuts subsidies and bets on nuclear and coal-fired power, critics say.

Workers at the floating power station, one of the world's biggest, have just finished laying about 50,000 interconne­cted panels on a vast dam reservoir.

Taking up space equivalent to several Tokyo Dome-sized baseball stadiums, the vast carpet of panels will supply power to about 5,000 homes from early 2018.

The project is the centerpiec­e of a solardomin­ated wave of renewable energy investment­s that followed the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The accident forced the shutdown of reactors that had supplied about one-quarter of resource-poor Japan's energy.

To plug the gap, electricit­y providers have been obliged since 2012 to buy power generated from green suppliers, including solar, at above-market rates – known as feed-in tariffs – fixed by the government each year.

But renewable energy investment­s have plateaued and are set to fall in the coming years as Tokyo cuts back subsidies while commoditie­s including coal, oil and natural gas remain cheap.

Japan is also facing a shortage of land for new solar installati­ons.

Kyocera, which is behind the floating farm south of Tokyo, is building a solar plant on an abandoned golf course.

''Several dynamics in the Japanese power sector have shifted since (2012) – such as weakening government support, cheaper fuel alternativ­es and electricit­y sector reform – which have all contribute­d to the slowdown in growth,'' BMI Research said in a report.

Some say Japan's future solar potential now sits squarely on the roofs of millions of homes.

''There is still a big potential for the Japanese market,'' said Atsuhiko Hirano, head of Solar Frontier, a unit of Japanese oil giant Showa Shell.

''Utility-scale projects have been the driver so far. In contrast, the residentia­l market has not grown so much. So there is still much more area where we can grow.

''(But) we are pushing the government to go further.''

Solar accounts for a small fraction of Japan's energy mix – 3.3 percent in 2015. But Tokyo has said it wants renewables – also including hydro and wind power – to account for 22 to 24 percent of the total by 2030.

Critical government support appears to be waning, however, as Tokyo drives a push to restart mothballed atomic reactors – an unpopular move among the nuclear-wary public.

The pro-nuclear drive is supported by utilities, which complained about being forced to buy and distribute subsidized power, especially with oil and natural gas prices at multi-year lows.

Japan is also raising eyebrows with plans to invest billions of dollars at home and abroad in new power plants fired by cheap coal – even as it calls for more green power at home.

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