Is the Japan PV Market the Next Big Thing?

Japan has been experiencing an enormous boom in solar energy development over the past year. More than 6.7 GW of PV projects have been approved between July 2012 and January 2013, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and more than 47 percent of these projects are over 1 megawatt (MW), which is locally known as Mega Solar.

Can Japan really be moving up to the second largest PV market in the world this year? There are some critics.

As Japan brings more Mega Solar online, it has started to experience grid issues. Hokkaido Power Electric Company, one Japan’s investor-owned utilities, revealed that the capacity of its ultra-high-voltage transmission, which PV systems sized over 2 MW are interconnected, is currently 400 MW. As of March 31, the utility received four times as many applications as it could hold. This means that the ¾ of the applied projects will not be able to access the grid or need to reduce scale — Hokkaido sent out notifications to large project applicants about the unavailability of the grid capacity. In the meantime, METI requested that project developers consider other less crowded areas for solar developments.

Due to the available land and relatively inexpensive land cost, the Hokkaido region accounts for about 25 percent of the large PV projects approved under the national FIT (Figure 1 below), while the utility only serves less than 3 percent of the national electricity demand.

The national FIT explicity states that utilities are obligated to provide access to the grids and purchase all power generated from renewable systems, except under certain circumstances. On April 17, METI announced emergency plans, which include “relaxing” conditions for the utilities to restrict or deny access to the grids to ensure stability of electricity supply.

The original FIT rules included a 30-day rule, which makes the utilities responsible for compensating renewable developers when they are requested to limit electricity production for more than 30 days a year.  METI is now considering a non-compensation rule in case the utilities limit electricity generation more than 30 days. The final rule will be announced in the mid-May this year.

The biggest PV project announced in Japan is a 400-MW (AC) project developed by Photovolt Development Partners GmbH, a German developer, on the island of Ukujima, Nagasaki Prefecture. The project was approved by METI in March before the FIT rate was reduced to ¥36/kWh from ¥40/kWh. This project will be phased out in several blocks, and the electricity produced will be fed to Kyushu Electric Power Company via a high-voltage, direct current undersea electric cable (about 55 km) that connects the remote island of Ukujima to the Kyushu mainland where electricity demand is much higher. 

Kyushu Electric Power Company has approved the greatest number of applications for Mega Solar projects — more than 800 MW as of the end of January, 25 percent of the national total.  Mr. Peter Gerstmann, Managing Director of Photovolt Development Partners GmbH, commented that he has not heard about the possible grid access limitation by Kyushu Electric Power Company. Besides the 400-MW project, the company is currently developing about 300 MW worth of PV projects throughout Japan.                                                    

Japan has several important energy issues to tackle: With the March 2010 Fukushima Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster, Japan has been working on replacing nuclear power with additional natural gas and other power resources. The FIT is meant to fuel the diversification of the nation’s energy mix. In order to do so, the nation not only needs to provide adequate grid capacity, but also open up grid access to new electricity generators. This requires further deregulation.

One local developer said, “First come, first serve. If you act quickly enough, you can be a winner.”  Another developer described the current situation as “just like Spain,” referring to the nation’s renewable energy policy troubles.

The Japanese government launched the FIT program that follows the steps of the German model in order to create a sustainable PV market. Since the nation is re-acting and devising new rules as it faces issues and challenges, this can lead to the replication of the boom-and-bust situation that happened in Spain, where sustainable growth was not achieved. 

Lead image: Japan flag and map via Shutterstock

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