Solar energy – a viable renewable option?

Silver lining in sight for makers of solar panels

Friday, April 22, 2011 Japan Times


Akiko Hirai says the Hamaoka power station 3 km from her home evokes such dread of the crippled Fukushima plant that she would spend ¥500,000 installing solar panels if it helped make Japan nuclear-free.

News photo
Solely solar: Dubbed a “mega solar” plant, Kansai Electric Power Co.’s commercial power station in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, generates electricity entirely by solar panels. KYODO PHOTO

“Who can really guarantee that they’re 100 percent safe? I want nuclear plants to be halted if they’re so frail,” said the 53-year-old housewife, who’s lived in Shizuoka Prefecture for more than 20 years. “It’s not that I’m worried about myself, it’s my daughter and other small children I’m concerned about.”

Hirai helps illustrate Japan’s growing antinuclear movement in the wake of the world’s biggest nuclear accident since Chernobyl. That’s creating an opportunity for makers of solar equipment such as Panasonic Corp. and Sharp Corp. to capitalize on orders that analysts estimate may exceed $100 billion over the next decade, bringing down costs for consumers.

“It’s become clear we can’t keep relying on nuclear power or fossil fuels,” said Koji Toda, chief fund manager at Resona Bank Ltd. in Tokyo. “Still, solar power is too expensive for the vmarket to bloom without subsidies. It’s easy to agree on the big picture but not so easy to determine who pays the price.”

Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd., Japan’s two largest makers of nuclear reactors, have underperformed the Topix index, while shares of Panasonic and Sharp have outperformed the benchmark since last month’s disaster struck.

Last June, Japan laid out plans to build nine reactors by 2020 and at least five more the following decade to increase the nation’s portion of nuclear energy to 50 percent of overall power generation by 2030 from 29 percent in 2009. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said March 31 the country needs to revise those policies.

That means Japan will probably step up a campaign to encourage the use of solar cells for years at the expense of atomic power, Takashi Watanabe, a Tokyo-based analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., wrote in an April 1 report. Solar may be the strongest option because of restrictions on where wind and thermoelectric power stations can be built, he said.

Replacing the proposed nuclear plants with solar ones would require 108 gigawatts of photovoltaic generation by 2020, according to Goldman Sachs. Based on the current estimated costs of solar cells, that capacity would cost more than $150 billion.

Solar-panel prices will likely fall to $1.50 per watt in the second half of 2011 from about $1.80 in 2010, Jenny Chase, a solar analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said March 29.

Panasonic and Sharp, Japan’s biggest maker of solar panels, would benefit from increased domestic adoption of the technology as the companies earn about half of their solar-panel revenue from Japan, Watanabe said. The strength of their brands and relations with homebuilders would also help the Japanese companies against Chinese solar firms, he said. Sharp spokeswoman Miyuki Nakayama declined comment.

“Interest in solar power and other alternative energy sources will probably rise further,” said Akihiko Oiwa, a spokesman for Sanyo Electric Co., Panasonic’s solar-panel unit. “Although they’re unlikely to replace nuclear energy right away, solar and other alternative energies will likely supplement existing power facilities.”

Politicians may help. Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa held a 90-cm solar panel on the streets this month as he pledged to install solar panels to support as many as 2 million households. Kanagawa will “kick off the revolution” to end Japan’s dependency on nuclear power, Kuroiwa said April 11, the day after the former journalist drew twice as many votes as his opponent in the election.

On the same day, Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu said he aims to make Shizuoka the top municipality in terms of the rate of solar-panel use. Kawakatsu plans to reduce Shizuoka’s reliance on nuclear energy from 80 percent by providing subsidies for consumers and funding research that could improve the efficiency of photovoltaic power.

“I’ve never felt such insecurity before,” said Tamako Sato, a 69-year-old housewife who lives in the city of Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, where the world’s biggest nuclear plant is located. “I want the plant to be out of the town.”

Reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant have been halted since an earthquake hit the plant in 2007 and caused radiation to leak.

Japan isn’t alone in reviewing its nuclear plans since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling equipment at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant, leading to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.

The U.S., the world’s biggest user of nuclear power, started a 90-day review of domestic nuclear safety last month. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 15 ordered the idling of the country’s seven oldest reactors, pending safety checks. Italy, the second-largest solar market after Germany, extended a moratorium Wednesday for its nuclear projects indefinitely to focus on traditional and renewable sources.

China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, will cut its 2020 target for nuclear power capacity and build more solar farms, due to Japan’s atomic crisis, an official at the National Development and Reform Commission said last month.

Germany may increase its annual solar installation target to 5 gigawatts from the current 3.5 gigawatts, according to estimates at research firm IHS ISuppli. Japan’s accident may also lead to a review of Italy’s plan to cut incentives for solar-panel buyers from June, the researcher said.

For Toshiba, Japan’s biggest maker of nuclear reactors, atomic energy still has the edge over other power sources.

“Even if we hypothetically say an accident occurs once in every 30 years and that we need to consider the cost for radiation leak problems, we’re also left with an issue of reducing carbon dioxide,” Toshiba President Norio Sasaki said in Tokyo last week. “Nuclear power will remain as a strong option.”

Hitachi President Hiroaki Nakanishi said April 6 residents’ concerns won’t derail Japan’s plans to seek more nuclear power.

“It surely has become harder to get the backing of residents to build a nuclear plant,” Nakanishi said. “It’s not possible for Japan to totally eliminate the usage of nuclear power.”

Electricity from coal costs about 7 cents a kilowatt hour, compared with 6 cents for natural gas and 22.3 cents for solar photovoltaic energy in the final quarter of last year, according to New Energy Finance estimates.

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