JAPAN: Solar Trend Catches Fire among Households

  • by Mutsuko Murakami* - IPS/IFEJ (tokyo)
  • Tuesday, December 29, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Soon she hopes to have a solar energy-producing device installed on the roof of her house, having obtained estimates from a home appliance chain store in her residential area in Kawasaki, located outside of the capital, along with her husband.

Naito and her husband are not alone in finding ways to cut their carbon emissions. According to the store’s manager, only well-to-do senior consumers were interested in such items in the past. But now, he says, people in their 30s and 40s are showing interest in such energy-saving equipment. 'It is the same trend you find among younger people who are interested in driving hybrid cars if they become more affordable,' he observes.

Today, observers say, Japanese homeowners are fitting their homes with solar power systems at a dramatic pace. According to the Japan Photovoltaic Expansion Center, the solar energy battery shipments for regular homes between April and September this year more than doubled, with a combined generating capacity of 205,833 kilowatts, from the same period last year.

The Japan Federation of Housing Organisations has observed a similar trend during the same period — new home buyers installing solar panels on their roofs at a rate double or triple the corresponding figure in years past. Sekisui Chemical Co. Ltd., a major home supplier in the East Asian island nation, says more than 75 percent of new home purchases came with orders for solar panel roofs during the same months.

In Nagano Prefecture in central Japan, where the sun shines longer compared to other parts of Japan, people are rushing in for government solar energy subsidies — a recently revived programme — for their solar power purchases. The Global Warming Preventive Activity Center of Nagano Prefecture typically received 100 to 200 such subsidy requests monthly. In recent months, however, this figure has jumped to over 300. By December, the number has almost doubled to 500. The sheer volume of requests has prompted the centre to increase its staff. Still, '(we) can hardly handle them all,' says Takashi Sasaoka, an official in charge of processing subsidy requests.

In one city in Nagano, a non-profit organisation has been credited with the rapid expansion of solar energy. Ohisama (Sunshine) Energy Co., the business arm of one such organisation in Iida City — known to have one of the longest hours of sunshine throughout Japan — has been raising funds since 2004 to promote solar energy systems in the city. It has installed solar panels in a total of 162 facilities, including day care centres, city hall buildings, hospitals as well as homes and shops. Their combined capacity translates to a reduction of 711 tons of carbon dioxide emission per year.

'People have been interested in solar energy all along, but now they have stronger economic incentives for installing the equipment,' says Hiroyuki Sunaga, president of Japan Roof Nagano, which markets solar energy systems. He has seen orders of solar panel roofs almost tripling in just half a year since April, compared with the same period last year. 'The market is booming with exploding demands this year,' he says.

This year, in fact, the government has enforced new policies that further drive consumers to shift to solar energy. In January, it resumed its subsidy programme for consumers purchasing solar panel roofs — a policy that had vigorously promoted the use of this alternative energy source until it was discontinued in 2005, when approximately 73,000 households installed solar panels on their roofs. Japan thus became the leading country across the world in the utilisation and expansion of solar energy systems.

The Democratic Party of Japan is seen as an aggressive advocate of renewable energy. Soon after assuming office in October, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced his administration’s commitment to cut the country’s carbon emission by 25 percent from the 1990 levels by 2020. He also said solar energy would be a prime alternative energy source.

During the years since 2006 the solar energy drive slowed down and the solar panel market shrank. Japan — considered the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which drive climate change — was consequently displaced by Germany in terms of solar power utilisation. But as the debate over global warming intensified, and amid criticisms from sceptics over Hatoyama’s carbon emission targets, government’s interest in alternative energy was renewed and the subsidy programme was revived early this year.

Under the new subsidy policy that came into effect in January 2009, the national government grants 70,000 yen (795 U.S. dollars) for every kilowatt to homeowners utilising a solar energy system capable of generating 10 kilowatts. More than 400 local prefectural governments, cities and towns also have their own subsidy programmes.

A new solar energy system buyer in Adachi-Ward of Tokyo can receive not only the government subsidy but also another 100,000 yen (1,162 dollars) from the Tokyo Metropolitan government. Tokyo aims to have 20,000 more homes get equipped with solar panels in the next two years.

Installing a typical 3.5-kilowatt solar energy system in an already existing house costs around two million yen (23,255 dollars) or 1.5 million yen (17,440 dollars) for a new home. This energy source should become more affordable to the average Japanese households, since the government unveiled a plan last year to have the solar energy system prices cut into half in three to five years, among others by promoting research and development of new materials and technology.

Not surprisingly, some families are already counting on a drastic cut in their monthly electricity bills, having learned that a household’s typical monthly bill of, say, 15,920 yen (185 dollars) decreases to 11,660 yen (135 dollars) if the house is powered by solar energy during, especially during daytime.

Another government policy that has added impetus to the solar energy boom in Japan is the requirement for electric power companies to buy surplus power produced by solar energy systems installed in homes. They purchase such power at 48 yen (56 U.S. cents) per kilowatt, double the price applied previously by the buying electric power companies. This policy, which was implemented in November, is in effect for the next 10 years.

With the subsidies provided, reduced power bills and higher prices for surplus power, consumers can expect to earn back the initial costs of fitting their homes with solar energy systems in 10 to 15 years, according to the Resources and Energy Agency.

Naito, the Tokyo housewife, believes many of her friends will similarly reduce their carbon footprints. 'It is not only an economic issue,' she says, adding that she has heard of families who, by using solar energy, have become more conscious of the need to go green and preserve energy, thus helping mitigate global warming.

'That is what I would like to see in my own family,' she says.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS — Inter Press Service and IFEJ — International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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