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Global Renewables War Is On: US Missing in Action

Jan 21, 2011 - Martin Rosenberg -

The world war on renewables is on. China. India. And the United States - along with Denmark and others - are out to battle for supremacy in what will be the next turn in the industrial revolution.

China is on its way to dominating the global wind generation business after a strong early assist through the adoption of policies that favored Chinese wind turbine manufacturers - and probably violated international trade rules. In the process, the New York Times reported, Chinese companies now control half the global $45 billion annual wind turbine market.

Now the combat is shifting to solar. The Wall Street Journal, in its story, "India's Solar Scene Vexes U.S.," reported that President Obama and U.S. companies want India to rollback trade restrictions that "threaten to cut out American companies as India embarks on a major rollout of solar power."

India will spend tens of billions of dollars to deploy 20,000 megawatts of solar generation by 2022, among the boldest of such efforts in the world, the Journal reported.

China and India are following a path set decades ago by Japan, when it launched a massive wave of industrial exports while restricted foreign access to its own markets.

I recently visited Japan with the Solar Electric Power Association to study how Japan, like other nations, is now trying to steer its young but growing solar power industry to rapid growth. Julia Hamm, association president, will be discussing the role of government support in the global solar sweepstakes at the EnergyBiz Leadership Forum in Washington Feb. 27 - March 1.

"Japan once was number one in production of PV," said Koichi Sakuta, director of the international affairs department of Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. "We'd like to come back to that position."

Solar power is one potential bright spot in an otherwise struggling Japanese economy. "The Japanese economic situation is very severe," said Shoji Watanabe, director of the new and renewable energy division of Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. "This is an area for growth."

Ambitious growth. The Japanese government one year ago embraced plans to deploy 28,000 megawatts of solar generation by 2020 and 53,000 megawatts by 2030. That would be equivalent to about half of the 100,000 megawatts of electricity generated today by all 104 nuclear power plants in the United States.

Japan and the United States are both in the early stages of deploying solar power. In the United States, 433 megawatts of solar were deployed last year, bringing the total to 1,640 megawatts. In Japan, 479 megawatts were installed last year, lifting the total to 2,630 megawatts, according to SEPA.

Japan removed its solar panel subsidies three years ago. Its current approach is to incentivize consumers and businesses to deploy solar, with the payback to come from sales of surplus power back to the grid at a premium price covered by all energy users in Japan.

Japan's intent is to nurture its solar manufacturing capabilities. At a time when China is pouring its competitively priced solar products into global markets, Japan has managed to make sure that upward of 90 percent of the solar panels being deployed domestically are made in Japan. Last year, China and Taiwan produced 49 percent of solar cells in the world, compared with Japan's 14 percent and North America's 6 percent, according to the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association's industry figures.

Sharp is one of the country's manufacturers gearing up for the country's push into solar. In gleaming, highly automated new facilities on Osaka's harbor front, it has built a new PV facility next to a factory making LCD television panels. Initially, the solar effort has been designed to produce 480 megawatts a year of thin-film solar panels. Plans call for ramping up production to 1,000 megawatts annually.

Hiroshi Okamoto, manager of Tokyo Electric Power's smart grid strategy group, indicated that all the policies to promote solar in Japan are not in place. "The cost recovery for utilities deploying PV will have to be determined by new systems in the future," he said.

Meanwhile, in sundry locations, through a variety of efforts, solar deployments increase.

Sekisui, a leading supplier of manufactured housing, produces 10,000 homes a year at its eight Japanese factories. And 78 percent of them are erected with solar panels on their rooftops, according to a company executive. The addition of the solar equipment adds about 9 percent to the cost of the homes.

Japan is hard at work researching ways to innovate on solar technology to reduce costs so that the technology will become more competitive. And it is preparing for the day when its power grid, already one of the most robustly reliant in the world, can stitch together a vast deployment of solar and other renewables.

China and India are doing the same. The United States, some say, is missing in action. Sharon A. Staz general manager and treasurer of Kennebunk Light & Power District in Maine, was part of the group of American utility experts to visit Japan with SEPA.

"In Japan, at least government has said we've got a goal for solar," she said. "We don't have that in the United States, and I think that is very problematic. It makes a lot of us flounder instead of having clear direction."


Updated: 2016/06/30

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