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Blog: Solar cells booming again—Solar Frontier aims to be the top supplier

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"The worldwide PV installation boom has subsided, with one big exception—Japan. More than 2,000 megasolar installations are planned in this country," the bullish editor-in-chief of an industry magazine said to me the other day. He contended, "Japan is at the epicenter of what promises be a new boom in PV installations."

Surveys show growth of the worldwide solar cell market is sluggish. The sole exception is Japan, where demand is soaring. In terms of installed capacity, Japan, having been an undistinguished performer for several years, came roaring back in 2013, rejoining the ranks of the world's leaders. Scarcely a week goes by without another news report trumpeting that the world's largest megasolar plant will be constructed somewhere in Japan.

As virtually Japan's entire fleet of nuclear power plants has been out of operation since the Fukushima disaster, the country has been dependent on thermal power generation fueled by expensive, imported natural gas. The spiraling national gas bill has pushed Japan's international balance of payments deeply into deficit.

It is hoped that long-anticipated imports of shale gas from the United States, expected to begin next year, will ease the fiscal pain. But there is anxiety as to whether Japan will be able to get enough of the stuff at an attractive price. On the other hand, though the technology for clawing up methane hydrate, touted as a dream fuel, from the ocean floor is no longer science fiction, commercialization is at least ten years down the road.

So the idea that solar cells can provide a much-needed solution to Japan's energy woes has found a receptive audience both among the general public and in government circles. In light of the painful experience of the Great East Japan Earthquake, many people in Japan have concluded that they themselves should start generating energy. More and more people tell me they are going to install solar panels at their homes and, looking ahead, will also install fuel cells once their cost comes down.

Meanwhile, companies are increasingly inclined to go ahead with PV projects, especially ones with capacity of more than 1MW, viewing them as an attractive investment provided the relatively high tariffs of Japan's FIT scheme are maintained.

Recently, during a week spent crisscrossing the Tohoku region, I was surprised by the dozens of construction plans for megasolar power plants in Yamagata and Iwate, prefectures known for heavy snowfall. As the number of farmers in those areas declines, tracts of farmland are being abandoned. Developers view those tracts as potential sites for solar plants. Also auspicious for boosters of solar power is the growing movement toward technology-intensive agriculture in which solar cells, LEDs and other devices will play a big role.

In addition, since Japan's manufacturing industry has lost some of its oomph, industrial parks find it more difficult to attract new plants. There are moves among industrial parks nationwide to devote excess space to solar power generation.

This is Hiroto Tamai, chairman of Solar Frontier, "On January 21 this year, we signed a site agreement with Ohiranuma local government and the Miyagi prefectural government. We will build a new plant for thin-film solar cells, representing an investment of 13 billion yen (US$124 million*). Annual production capacity will be equivalent to 150 MW. The Tohoku plant will harness our latest technology and serve as a blueprint for our future mass-production facilities overseas. The new plant will be in addition to our Miyazaki plant's 1GW capacity, but we won't be satisfied with that. Our target is much higher. We want to gain the top position in the global PV market." Tamai made these expansive comments in a speech at a seminar held by Miyagi Prefecture on August 26.

*Original figures are in Japanese yen. The exchange rate is roughly US$1=105 yen.

Solar Frontier, a wholly owned subsidiary of Showa Shell Sekiyu, was established to commercialize the CIS solar cell—made of copper, indium and selenium—that the oil company has been studying and developing for over 40 years. Solar Frontier's workforce has grown to more than 1,500.

Unlike most compound thin-film solar cells, Solar Frontier's CIS solar cell does not contain hazardous materials. The module's flat, smooth surface makes it suitable for covering entire roofs, and the design is also unobtrusive. The panel is resistant to shade, so it generates power even when partly stained or blanketed with snow. I heard that the company is increasing the conversion efficiency rapidly, which is especially notable since the efficiency of compound solar cells is generally lower than that of crystalline silicon ones.

Renewable energy in Japan currently satisfies only about 10% of electricity demand, but the government's roadmap calls for this to rise to 20% by 2030. Tamai explained that Solar Frontier positions PV power generation as the leading technology among renewables and intends to promote PV power generation nationwide. The company is eyeing overseas markets, too. Tamai said Solar Frontier is eager to show the high quality of made-in-Japan products.

Sales of consumer electronics and home appliances in Japan have been flatlining at about 7.5 trillion yen a year. But sales of solar cell-related products had grown to 2.5 trillion yen by 2013, and show no sign of losing steam. I am hoping Japan will keep a leading position in the global installation league table, and moreover, demonstrate its fundamental strength as a manufacturing nation in production volumes, too.

Related press release:
Solar Frontier Signs Site Agreement for New Tohoku Plant (Jan. 24, 2014)
Solar Frontier to Build "No.4" Solar Module Plant in Japan's Tohoku Region (Dec. 19, 2013)

Related articles:
Solar Frontier to build CIS PV fab 4 in Tohoku (Dec.27, 2013)
Solar Frontier sets record for CZTS solar cell efficiency (Dec. 13, 2013)
Update: Showa Shell aiming at a global 10% share with CIS solar cells (June 3, 2009)

Contributed by Wataru Izumiya, President, Sangyo Times, Inc., the publisher of The Semiconductor Industry News. Translation by SemiconPortal-EmergingTech from Japan, which added the note and links.

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