Hydropower, Solar

Solar Lessons from the Land of the Rising Sun

When most people think “solar electric power” — even people in our industry — they tend to think “sunbelt.” California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, that’s where the future of solar lies in the United States. It’s one of our industry’s biggest myths, one that the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) works every day to refute.

The reality here in the United States is that solar electric power has a foothold in every region of the country. To cite just two examples, Public Service Electric & Gas Company in New Jersey and Public Service Company of Colorado are two of the top ten utilities in terms of installed solar megawatts, according to SEPA’s 2009 Utility Solar Rankings.

Around the world, many countries not typically thought of as sunny or tropical are also investing heavily in solar electric power. In July, I led a delegation of utility leaders on a fact-finding mission to Japan. The trip included 18 utility executives and managers, and we traveled around the Tokyo area for three days meeting with representatives from Japanese utilities, government agencies, research organizations and solar companies. We also toured facilities in central Japan, before wrapping up the trip in Kyoto. 

Japan may be the Land of the Rising Sun, but Tokyo experiences more cloudy days than sunny days and most of the country experiences a two-month rainy season. Unlike the United States, Japan’s climate and geography do not lend themselves well to renewable energy generation from wind or hydropower. So to meet its renewable energy goals, Japan has embraced solar at the consumer, manufacturing and national policy levels. We came away impressed with the country’s commitment.

While the United States and Japan are about on par in terms of solar capacity installed, we can learn a lot from our number one ally in the Pacific. On November 18, SEPA published a full report that summarizes our findings. From that report, here are some initial takeaways that have emerged from observation made by members of the delegation:

  • The Japanese are embracing electrification of their economy in order to make room for more renewable resources. For example, they’re building homes with electric heating systems and installing photovoltaic systems on the roofs to power them. They view renewable energy and energy efficiency as two sides of the same coin, with one supporting the other. That’s not always the case here in the United States, where renewable proponents and energy efficiency experts often find themselves at odds. The Japanese experience convinced me that we need both, and that we should look for more ways to work together to achieve our common goals of clean, reliable and affordable electric power.
  • Ninety percent of the solar technology installed in Japan is manufactured in Japan, leading to a new and growing sector of the economy that employs thousands in well-paying jobs. (The same is true in China and Germany, by the way). There are downsides to this strategy – installation costs aren’t dropping as rapidly as the Japanese would like because they’re using their own, more expensive technology, for example. Still, we need to emulate that model here. Solar energy already supports 79,000 jobs and could support even more if we committed to using “home-grown” solar power. One of my companions on the trip called green energy technology “the next great battle for leadership among the industrial world.” It’s not only a battle we can win and should win, it’s also battle we have to win.
  • Japan’s solar power market benefits tremendously from firm policy set by the Japanese government. The country’s national renewable energy policy provides the certainty that utilities, suppliers and investors need to make smart decisions about solar technology development and installation. Growth in the U.S. market for solar electric power is strong – and is expected to outpace growth in Japan in the next few years – but growth would be even stronger with a definitive, consistent policy from the federal government. As one of the utility representatives who made the trip said, “We don’t have clear direction from the federal government, and I need that direction so my resources [are deployed] correctly – because a wrong move could do great damage not just to my utility but to my city as well.”
  • Japan leads the United States in thinking about and addressing the great issues associated with a national power grid that relies on a large percentage of electricity generated by intermittent resources. Because renewables provide just a small percentage of electric power production today, the existing system – built to support large, central station power plants that supply immense amounts of electricity to wide swaths of territory – has been able to handle the load. That will change as we begin to approach 20 or 30 or 40 percent, and the time to start planning for that future is right now.

This is the third fact-finding mission that SEPA has sponsored, following similar trips to Germany and Spain. It won’t be the last. In fact, we have already planned our trip to Italy in 2011 to learn from the solar industry in that country. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned in Japan is the importance of the cooperation and coordination – not just among different stakeholders here in the United States but also among different countries. We have a lot to learn from each other.