Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) — Japan should be able to turn the energy woes triggered by the 2011 Fukushima disaster into a chance to integrate more clean energy, said an industry expert.

Yukinori Kuwano, a former Sanyo Electric Co. president and an early developer of solar technology, said the solar industry at the moment has the potential to make photovoltaic power more competitive compared with conventional power sources.

The Fukushima disaster and the idling of Japan’s nuclear reactors for safety checks have opened the door to a broader adoption and promotion of renewable energy. While solar has so far proven the most popular clean energy source, panel makers must improve efficiency and the lifespan of their products to lower costs, Kuwano said in an interview at his Osaka home, where he installed panels that were the first to be connected to the grid in Japan in 1992.

“There is still room for improvement for panels,” Kuwano said. “If you can increase life expectancy to 30, 40 years, they will be competitive” with conventional power, he said.

Nuclear provided more than a quarter of Japan’s electricity before the Fukushima crisis. As the resource-poor nation turns to more fossil fuels, imports have soared while voter distrust in atomic power remains strong. Japan this week reported the biggest November trade deficit on record, partly because of higher fuel costs.

His push to improve solar comes from experience researching the technology. Kuwano, who joined Osaka-based Sanyo in 1963, has been credited for inventing a type of solar-powered calculator as well as his role in promoting the solar industry as president of the Photovoltaic Power Generation Technology Research Association.

Efficiency Push

Kuwano, 72, was president of Sanyo between 2000 and 2005 and has been leading the technology research group since 2004. Panasonic Corp. completed its acquisition of Sanyo in 2011 in a deal designed to consolidate its position in businesses including rechargeable batteries and solar panels.

The executive and fellow solar officials lobbied the government and the power industry in Japan more than two decades ago so that surplus power generated from residential rooftops could be sold to utilities.

A Sanyo-developed solar cell known as a Heterojunction with Intrinsic Thin-layer, or HIT, achieved 24.7 percent efficiency at research levels earlier this year, according to Panasonic. Typical silicon solar cell efficiencies are 17.5 percent to 19.5 percent, according to Wang Xiaoting, a Beijing-based analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables Booming

Panel makers must aim for conversion efficiency — the rate sunlight is turned into electricity — of as much as 28 percent, he said.

The oil crisis in the 1970s prompted companies in the U.S., Europe and Japan to develop solar technology to help reduce dependency on the fuel, Kuwano said. A similar movement is underway today, with Fukushima inevitably pushing Japan toward a cleaner energy future, he said.

Japan’s renewables market is booming thanks to the July 2012 introduction of an incentive program for clean energy. The country is rivaling China as the world’s largest solar market for new installations over the next three years, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. More than 23,000 megawatts of clean energy projects have been approved since the incentive program’s beginning, more than doubling the capacity that existed before the program started.

Pressure is now building to upgrade the nation’s grid to accommodate intermittent power from the sun and wind as clean energy use expands. Japan has an opportunity to overcome the challenges and experiment with new technology, Kuwano said.

“As renewable energy increases, Japan will improve its power network and that is when Japan can change drastically,” he said. “Japan’s energy cost is so high that what we experiment with here has great meaning.”

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