The PV Expo exhibition and conference takes place in Japan this week and will look both to the present task of executing projects from a 50GW-plus pipeline and to the longer term challenges faced by an industry entering the final years of its feed-in tariff (FiT).
The event takes place from Wednesday until Thursday, as one of several exhibitions co-located during Tokyo World Smart Energy Week, which is set to address some of the bigger questions surrounding Japan's energy future. Along with conference sessions devoted to the FiT and the future of solar as a business in Japan, a new conference strand, Energy Liberalisation Japan, will look at the forthcoming prospects for Japan to deregulate its electricity industry.
Commentators and experts, including Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF), have said that while they are a little sceptical that it will all happen according to plan, if it does happen, the changes might have a huge positive impact. The deregulation process is scheduled to begin next year, allowing customers to choose from a wider range of providers and should also lead to an “unbundling” of electricity from transmission if everything goes to plan. Currently Japan's 10 regional electric utility companies are also responsible for the grid network.
There is also an emphasis on smart home and storage technologies this year at the Tokyo event. One European industry expert PV Tech spoke to said that after several years of great promise, the smart home and smart community strand of the show is likely to be a key point of interest for the solar industry, especially as the domestic PV industry moves toward an age where self-consumption takes pre-eminence over FiT incentives.
In storage, meanwhile, recent reports that the Japanese government is looking to invest heavily in hydrogen fuel cell technologies, both for electric vehicles (EVs) and stationary applications mean that the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Expo is likely to garner a great deal of interest.
While Japanese PV module suppliers and makers, along with their Chinese colleagues and competitors will be showcasing their latest upstream technologies, much of the international interest in the PV strand of WSEW seems to be coming from developers. Conergy and Martifer Solar's Japanese divisions will both be presenting at the exhibition, for example. As mentioned in previous reports on Japan, project development remains the most financially rewarding aspect of the business here. This is in spite of a growing acceptance in the industry here that, hampered by a lack of available land, rising electricity bills and the need to protect the grid as PV penetration increases, brand new utility-scale (or 'megasolar' to give it its Japanese nickname) PV plants will slow to a trickle.
With measures taken to resolve the grid connection issue – following some FiT rule changes and the government hosting a 'working group' which calculated how much available capacity exists – the five electric utilities in question have once again started to look at the paperwork mounting on their office desks since approvals stopped late last year.
There is a growing sense of solar energy as part of a bigger picture now than ever before. In Europe, the US and Australia, solar is now talked about within the context of an energy transition.
Japan is not alone in facing a post-FiT market landscape in the near future. However, unlike regions of Europe, where upfront support has been cut drastically and sometimes even applied retroactively, Japan at least seems to know where the many of the challenges are ahead. We must also hope that the right way to tackle these challenges will be prioritised over short-term political or economic gain.
The nuclear question still hangs over the nation as a whole. The government is expected to bring two or three nuclear reactors back online this year, despite a significant amount of popular opposition. It makes short-term economic sense for Japan's electric utilities, forced to import huge quantities of fossil fuels to make up demand and some – not least of all the Japanese government in the run up to next year's Paris climate talks – also present the argument that as a low carbon technology nuclear is favourable to coal. Yet the fact that there have been two earthquakes registering above 6 on the Richter Scale in the past few days alone off the Japanese coast might serve as a stark reminder of March 2011, when the Fukushima Daichi nuclear catastrophe ironically set the wheels in motion for Japan's FiT regime to come into being.
PV Expo Japan opens at Tokyo Big Sight exhibition centre on Wednesday with an official ceremony. The keynote speaker will be Takayuki Ueda, commissioner at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, which is part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). Also attending the event will be dignitaries from Denmark, China, Germany and others as well as a range of energy industry figures, including Jifan Gao, chief executive of Trina Solar, Shawn Qu chairman and CEO of Canadian Solar, Seongwoo Nam of Hanwha Q Cells and others including representatives of EDF, Tokyo Electric Power, First Solar and BYD America.
An in-depth exploration of the state of Japan's solar industry, present and future, can be found in the latest issue of PV Tech Power. To subscribe for free, visit www.pv-tech.org/power.