Energy: Rising Sunlight

3 minute read
Jim Frederick/Tokyo

With oil prices heading toward $79 a barrel, the age of the solar panel is dawning at last, and electronics companies from the land of the rising sun are leading the way. Decades of money-losing research and development are finally paying off at Japanese electronics giants like Sharp, Sanyo, Mitsubishi and Kyocera, who together control about 50% of the global market. “The solar units of these companies are already real businesses, and they are only going to become larger parts of their operations,” says Yuki Sugi, a Lehman Bros. analyst in Tokyo who covers Sharp and Sanyo.

Sharp, the world’s market leader, sold more than $1 billion worth of solar panels last year and expects a 28% increase this year. Sanyo expects a 60% sales increase this year, and at Kyocera, solar panels account for 5% of the company’s total sales and 12% of its operating profit. “Solar is a booming business,” says Sharp president Katsuhiko Machida, “and it is one of our core targets for growth.”

With few oil resources of its own, Japan has long made alternative-fuel research and conservation national priorities. Meanwhile, electronics companies have been deeply interested in the power management of their devices and in silicon-based materials like computer chips–technologies at the heart of silicon solar-panel manufacturing. Unlike in other countries, where oil and gas companies tend to research solar energy, electronics companies here have no other energy divisions to worry about compromising.

In Japan panel companies and the national government kick-started solar-power adoption with subsidies. A consumer who installs a solar-panel array on a house can sell surplus energy to the local utility. Germany has implemented that model most successfully, and it has been adopted not just in Japan but in South Korea and other European countries. Even with incentives, start-up costs are high, about $20,000 per household in Japan. “The biggest priority now is to reduce costs,” says Seiichi Kiyama, general manager of the commercial group of Sanyo Electric’s solar division.

True cost competitiveness is within reach. Panel costs have fallen 66% over the past decade. Company executives and outside analysts estimate that a further 50% reduction, which would make solar-powered-electricity costs comparable with other types of fuel, is possible within the next decade. And because natural-gas and coal prices are increasing along with oil prices, the cost competitiveness of solar power could come a lot earlier.

In the U.S., government incentives are not as developed, but consumers are starting to demonstrate a new awareness of environmental issues. Consider the popularity of the Toyota Prius and other hybrid cars. And design advances are winning converts: see-through solar panels installed in place of regular window glass are a classy upgrade from black rooftop arrays.

No one is declaring the end of fossil fuels, and solar-panel proponents are wary not to repeat the unfulfilled promises of the past. Solar power accounts for less than 1% of the world’s energy production, and even the rosiest forecasts predict that number won’t exceed 10% by 2030. Still, the industry has got its jump start. “This is ultimately a hopeful business,” says Kiyama. “And that makes it a good business to be in.”

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