Naoto Kan challenges researchers to drive down the cost of solar power.
Just as market analysts were starting to worry that feed-in tariffs (FiTs) could kill the global boom in solar, events in Japan have reignited prospects for growth.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan is backing off from nuclear as its major source of low-carbon power. It is not alone. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel suddenly promised to phase out nukes so fast that her country will need to ramp up its world-leading renewables programme. And in Italy, a referendum put a stop to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s plans for new reactors there. These were the two countries that had led the field with FiTs weighty enough to make photovoltaics (PV) an attractive proposition, and between them accounted for the lion’s share of the solar upsurge in Europe in 2010.
However, FiTs have their downsides – not least affordability. So Prime Minister Naoto Kan has taken a somewhat different slant with Japan’s ‘Sunrise Plan’. Although the country does have feed-in tariffs, the new plan puts less emphasis on market subsidy, and more on research and development to drive down the price of PV. Kan’s challenge to the technologists is forthright: to cut the cost of PV power threefold by 2020, and then halve it again in the next decade. That would make it 7 yen per kWh: a truly competitive price. Nuclear would still come in cheaper – official figures for 2009 were just 5-6 yen per kWh, but that scarcely takes account of either waste disposal or precautionary costs.
Renewables are now intended to provide 20% of Japanese electricity by 2020. Solar is only a small part of that, but the Sunrise Plan entails a remarkable 27-fold increase in Japan’s solar power capacity by 2020. Kan wants solar panels on ten million homes by then, and for them to be compulsory on all new homes and public buildings by 2030.
Large-scale PV figures too: the internet and telecoms tycoon Masayoshi Son, Chief Executive of Softbank, is heading (and helping to fund) a special project to get local authorities to agree to build massive solar farms on unused agricultural land. At around 20MW capacity, these would count as serious power stations by anyone’s standards. – Roger East
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