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Aerial view of the Sakuto PV plant in Japan

Solar is becoming par for the course

Nate Franklin, MD of Pacifico Energy, gives his predictions for the solar industry in Japan and worldwide. He also reveals why it feels good to harvest clean energy for this island nation.

Nate Franklin, MD of Pacifico Energy, posing in front of solar panels at the Sakuto solar PV plant

Nate Franklin

People still ask me when solar will be seen as a commercial option, not just environmental. I tell them we’re already there. Solar competes with other generating technologies even without subsidies. Costs are a quarter of what they once were. Lenders are more comfortable with the technology. The modules are more efficient. Energy yield has grown, largely because our understanding of the irradiance of a given location is that much better than 10 years ago.

Take our 257.7MW Sakuto solar photovoltaic (PV) project in Mimasaka-shi, Okayama, as an example. This is the largest solar PV scheme under construction in Japan to date. It’s a complex, mountainous, space-constrained site, with one third located on a former golf course.

The varied terrain brings real challenges, so we were reliant on advanced 3D layout modelling and satellite data to understand and optimise the energy yield. Without it, we’d have struggled to accurately set the module spacing with a view to mitigating shadow changes and limiting shading loss due to the nearby mountains. Suitable sites of this size are rare, given the number of small landowners in Japan. So if you get one, you need to trust that the estimates prove correct when you go operational.

The next step for solar in Japan is to incorporate storage. Of course, we already know how to do it. But we haven’t reached the point where combining them is the natural thing to do. There’s a sense among the utilities that solar doesn’t feed enough of the grid to require storage. Once that line is crossed, then I can see the balance shifting very rapidly away from fossil fuels.

Worldwide, we’re going to see more and more renewable energy because it makes economic sense. Lowering of emissions won’t come from global treaties or government interventions, but rather private industry pursuing good business. I don’t listen too closely to what the politicians say on this. I prefer to seek the opinion of economic analysts, such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Its outlook for how fuel and electricity markets will evolve by 2040 suggests that solar will quickly replace coal as a more affordable source of energy – even by the early 2020s in China and India. Solar generation costs will drop a further 85% in Japan by 2040, it says.

Five years ago, Japan was playing catch up. There was a palpable sense of urgency after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. The government wanted to push solar forward and provided good incentives. The industry is well established here now, so the policy is for measured growth, alongside wind and biomass. Of course, Japan is already leading the way with electric and hybrid cars, with more than 40,000 charge points nationwide. The rest of the world will surely follow soon.

Harnessing natural, domestic resources is especially important for national security, as Japan won’t need to rely on foreign imports, as it does for coal or gas. Solar can give independence to an island nation like Japan. Additionally, people don’t feel comfortable living around nuclear plants now, and I don’t blame them.

Conversely, solar parks are very peaceful. There’s no activity – no noise from moving parts. No pipes and emissions. No whirring turbines. No people. Once you set them up, they look after themselves. The grass grows up under the panels. You see a lot of nature. Sakuto especially is really pretty, with mountains rising up on every side. Sometimes I get the chance to sit quietly and reflect a little on where all this electricity will end up, and the families and communities who will use it. It feels great to be contributing to Japanese society by providing power across the grid, and all the benefits that brings to everyday life. We’re increasing energy reliability without polluting the environment. That’s got to be a good thing.

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