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Asahi Shimbun: Japan is the global leader in the solar cell market

EXTRACT: Japanese makers now control half the global solar cell market. A Showa Shell official said: “Compared to the major players, our share will be peanuts at the start. But our intention is to complement the conventional solar cell market, and eventually develop our second-generation product share.”

THE ARTICLE

KUMAMOTO–As the producer of half the world’s solar cells, Japan is the global leader in the pursuit of this alternative energy source.

Published: Nov 04, 2006

Now the region of Kyushu, with its plentiful sunshine and the enthusiastic backing of the local government, is becoming Japan’s center for the production of solar technology. Solar-cell production has grown at an annual rate of 30 percent, and Kyushu is positioning itself as the “solar island.” Along with sunshine, Kyushu offers the advantage of safety. “There are fewer earthquakes to worry about,” said an official at Fuji Electric Systems Co., which has recently constructed a solar-cell production base in the region, where local governments are encouraging such expansion

With Fuji Electric and Honda Motor Co. both setting up factories, Kumamoto Prefecture established a strategic council on the solar industry in fiscal 2006, inviting both companies to join in. The council has set a target of 100 billion yen worth of solar cells and related items to be shipped out of Kumamoto Prefecture by fiscal 2010. The industry, government and academia will collaborate to meet the target, while giving support to local industries and educating specialists at universities

Manufacturers entering the solar market are contending with a global shortage of an essential material for solar cells, but they are coming up with innovative ways around the problem

Most conventional solar cells are made from pure crystalline silicon, a material also used in making semiconductors. As demand for the chips grows, the price of silicon has soared, putting pressure on mass-production of solar cells. In 2002, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., began producing a new kind of amorphous silicon solar cell at its Nagasaki Shipyard and Machinery Works’ Isahaya Plant in Nagasaki Prefecture. The cells use less silicon

Mitsubishi invested 10 billion yen to build an additional commercial production plant for microcrystalline-silicon tandem photovoltaic modules. Production is due to begin in April. These “tandem” solar cell modules consist of multiple, thin-film photovoltaic layers that can absorb a broader range of wavelengths of sunlight, thus achieving higher power-conversion efficiency in comparison to conventional solar cells

The company is expanding its natural energy business. The new products will be exported mainly to Europe

A factory in the mountains of Nankan, Kumamoto Prefecture, is the production base for Fuji Electric Systems. The Tokyo-based company began in October producing lightweight plastic film solar-cell modules that are thin and flexible. Conventional solar cells tend to be hard glass panels. Fuji Electric’s 1-millimeter thick solar cell sheets weigh 1 kilogram per square meter. The company expects the new solar cells will gain wide use. They are flexible enough to be used on curved surfaces and can be installed in public spaces and facilities. Development of the thin film took nearly a decade before reaching mass production. Fuji invested some 6 billion yen in creating a first-time production base west of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture

Other technologies bypass silicon altogether. Japanese oil refiner Showa Shell Sekiyu KK will begin production in January of thin-filmed solar cells at its new Miyazaki Solar Cell Plant in Miyazaki. The film is a non-silicon compound of copper, selenium and indium. The solar cell module has high power-conversion efficiency, close to conventional solar cells, yet its production uses half as much energy

The film is solid black, which, according to a company official, “blends well with the environment on rooftops.” The company has been developing it for over a decade, with ambitions to expand it into their next core business, second only to their oil business. Honda Motor Co. is also gearing up to start mass-production of non-silicon thin-film solar cells in the latter half of 2007 at their factory in Ozu, Kumamoto Prefecture. This will mark the first foray into the solar cell market by an automaker. Honda expects to produce enough solar cells to power about 8,000 households

Japanese makers now control half the global solar cell market. A Showa Shell official said: “Compared to the major players, our share will be peanuts at the start. But our intention is to complement the conventional solar cell market, and eventually develop our second-generation product share.”

Copyright 2006. Asahi Shimbun

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