As a primary school student in the 1980s and 90s in Australia, one of my favourite ways to procrastinate was covering the solar strip on the top of my calculator. Of course, I thought little of the wonderful science behind this strip, instead marvelling at how I could actually turn it off without pressing a button.
Solar energy. Harnessing the light energy of the sun. What an amazing achievement by humans. Yet, it remains largely under-appreciated by many countries and constantly in battle with another force of the human character, in the form of political and commercial interests.
In Japan, solar energy has experienced both the highs and lows of public and governmental support, but most recently, it has experienced overwhelming attention out of necessity. The devastating effects of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami marked a turning point in energy use in Japan. The full effects of this turning point cannot be measured due to the relatively recent occurrence of the event, however the change is clearly evident.
It seems that everywhere you travel to in Japan nowadays, there are solar panels either free standing or decorating a large percentage of the roofs of houses and buildings. They are ubiquitous in both urban and rural areas, with companies dealing with an astounding number of orders. It is now inconceivable to not have solar panels on the roof of your new home, regardless of whether it is perceived to diminish the aesthetic appeal. As those living in Japan are well aware, when something catches on in Japan, it really catches on. It appears as though any available plot of land not marked for housing or farming is now being turned into mini solar farms. It was not always this way though.
Japan’s solar-panel manufacturers led the design of the photovoltaic panels in the 1980s and helped establish the global solar industry in the 1990s. During Japan’s golden age of electronic technology development in the 1990s, companies like Sharp, Sanyo Electric, Panasonic, and Kyocera stood at the forefront of solar technology research and development. According to Fairley (2014), Japanese producers began ramping up sales and solar installations. However, it all came to an abrupt halt towards the end of the 1990s as the government made the momentous decision to favour nuclear power.
As expected, photovoltaic sales declined during the mid-2000s and by 2007 Japanese producers had relinquished their global market leadership to U.S., Chinese and European manufacturers. The impressive advances and enormous potential of photovoltaics went largely ignored for most of the 2000s, because the country’s powerful utilities sector exerted their political muscle in support of nuclear power. As former prime minister of Japan, Naoto Kan conceded “the power of electric power companies, the people who wanted to promote nuclear power, were opposed to further investment in solar” (Fairley, 2014). Up until early 2011, nuclear power had provided 30% of the electricity on the grid (World Nuclear Association, 2015), and renewable energies, like solar, struggled to find their footing amongst the burgeoning strength of the nuclear industry. Over time and naïve ignorance, the public’s perceptions were changing into the belief that renewables were weak and unreliable compared to the aura of strength and limitless potential of nuclear energy.
Then, disaster struck. The coastline of north-eastern Japan was devastated by an enormous earthquake and resultant tsunami, which led to an explosion at the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant in Fukushima prefecture. The radiation and continuing issues related to this explosion, and the appalling management of the incident, have severely affected the public’s confidence in the safety of nuclear power. Within one year, all of the nuclear reactors were ordered to shut down. The process of restarting them will be long and fraught with frustrations, as every one of them must be upgraded and inspected to meet the heightened safety standards put in place.
As a result, electricity prices rose by about 20 percent for homes and 30 percent for businesses (Fairley, 2014). The government was compelled to place more emphasis on alternative sources of energy, namely fossil fuels such as coal and liquefied natural gas, and the renewable energies. Suddenly, solar energy had been revived as a viable option to provide energy once again. In less than two years after the Fukushima incident, Japan more than doubled its solar generating capacity (Fairley, 2014). Pre-Fukushima, the government had conservatively aimed for the production of around 524kW for in-house use (T.E.P.C.O., 2010). However, two years post-Fukushima, developers had installed nearly 10 GW capacity of photovoltaics (Fairley, 2014). Nevertheless, due to the long absence of support from the government, most of the millions of panels being installed were imported from established companies overseas instead of domestically. Japan was now suffering the consequences of their past decision to permit the unchallenged monopolization of the utilities by the nuclear sector, and the insignificant support of research and development in renewable energy. However, it is not all dark and gloomy. There has been a significant increase in public awareness and support of domestically produced solar technology in the past two years.
During the initial boom of solar technology, families would conservatively opt for one or two photovoltaic rooftop panels for their home; enough for a hot shower each day. However, these days it is more common to see the entire roof fitted with thin, stylish panels. New homeowners are increasingly more conscious of the benefits environmentally, and probably more importantly, financially of fitting the panels. National law requires surplus energy to be purchased by the electric companies and reimbursed in the form of a solar surcharge (T.E.P.C.O., 2010). In this country of earthquake and typhoon events that shut down the power grids, it is also seen as a safer option. This is in contrast to the early impressions of installing photovoltaic cells, when the cost was high despite the government subsidy, and the general fear that initial costs would not be recovered (Kimura & Suzuki, 2006).
Furthermore, there have been significant technological improvements to the solar panels being installed on residential and commercial buildings, incorporating more efficient silicon compositions, and innovative designs such as wafer patterns and nanotechnology. This reinvigoration of the solar industry is encouraging and gathering momentum once again. Moreover, it is gaining more public support as the use of panels becomes increasingly more visible.
In another interesting advancement, large-scale projects are underway to create floating solar power plants. Yamakura Dam in Chiba prefecture is one such project nearing its estimated completion date of March, 2016. According to Lufkin (2015), it will cover 180,000 square meters and have the capacity to power around 5,000 households. This seems to be an attractive prospect given the scarcity of land available for large solar fields in largely mountainous Japan. Furthermore, floating solar fields are free from the destructive and disruptive power of earthquakes. There are always implications with such innovative ideas, such as the effect on aquaculture, the rate of deterioration due to corrosion, and the nature of the body of water. At this stage, the fields are being constructed on freshwater reservoirs, however research is continuing into the use of solar fields on offshore sites that contain more variables such as waves, tides, and an accelerated rate of corrosion (Lufkin, 2015).
Japan’s reliance on non-renewable sources of energy is unavoidable. The size of the population and the magnitude of the economy demands more than renewable energy can provide at this stage. However, the percentage of the overall energy demand being harnessed by renewable sources, in this case solar but also geothermal and wind, is increasing and has an optimistic future. Whether the lessons learned from adversity can influence the political and commercial interests is yet to be seen.