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Solar power taking off in a big way across Japan

May 06, 2013 - TORU NAKAGAWA - The Asahi Shimbun

One-third of all prefectural governments in Japan are either planning or building mega-solar power plants, each capable of generating more than 1,000 kilowatts (equal to 1 megawatt) of electricity.

In some cases, the entities are building more than one facility.

The electricity will be sold to electric power companies under the feed-in tariff system, an incentive program introduced last July that offers above-market rates for energy from renewable sources.

The Asahi Shimbun found that 17 prefectural governments across Japan are committed to solar power generation. The study covers local governments’ own power plants or those of joint ventures between public and private companies trying to move in on the power generation business.

As a result, solar power generated across Japan under such setups will come to about 100,000 kilowatts in total, including at sites already in production.

The figure is equivalent to the monthly needs of about 30,000 households, and exceeds the 70,000 kilowatts of electricity generated at mega-solar power plants operated by 10 leading electric power companies, including Tokyo Electric Power Co. TEPCO is the operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Local governments plan to use sites, landfill for example, that are currently idle to build the solar plants. The idea is to make effective use of such land plots, and use the profits generated from solar power to fund local services.

Hyogo Prefecture plans to build more than one plant, which it expects will generate a combined 35,000 kilowatts of electricity.

It is also offering to rent out land held by the prefectural government for the development of solar power generation by private companies. However, officials at the Hyogo prefectural public enterprise agency said they intend to take the lead in the project.

Ibaraki Prefecture is scheduled to build a single solar power facility capable of generating 2,000 kilowatts of electricity at a wastewater treatment plant in fiscal 2013.

The site is expected to generate 80 million yen ($800,000) a year in revenue, which will be used to maintain various facilities.

The feed-in tariff system was introduced to encourage investment in natural energy resources. Electricity generated by solar power and other natural energy resources, such as wind power, is sold to electric power companies at a fixed price. Utilities can pass along the price through electricity rates. As a result, ordinary households will not see any particular benefit.

Officials in Hiroshima Prefecture said it was unfair that the profits enjoyed by electric power companies would be buoyed by households. For this reason, they said the profits will be used as subsidies for investments by households in energy-saving equipment.

At the end of January, mega-solar power plants across Japan were generating about 80,000 kilowatts of electricity, according to the industry ministry. Most of them are managed by big firms, such as trading companies. Only a few are managed locally, such as in Niigata Prefecture at present.

By TORU NAKAGAWA/ Staff Writer