Why are so many Japanese solar companies at the top of the solar heap?
There are a few reasons that Japanese solar energy companies are making some of the best solar panels on the market.
One of the main reasons, however, is that they have been making solar panels in Japan for a long time.
Mitsubishi Solar has been developing solar cells since 1974.
Kaneka started studying amorphous silicon solar technology in 1980.
Kyocera Solar has been producing solar panels since 1975.
Sharp Solar has been harnessing the power of the sun since 1959 (that’s over half a century!).
As surprising as it might be to those who think that solar power is a brand new technology, these four companies alone have over 150 years of solar panel experience.
This head start in the solar industry is one of the main reasons that Japan is a leader internationally. Another thing that Japan’s solar industry has going for it is the willingness of existing companies to give solar manufacturing a try.
This openness to solar can be seen in electronics giants like Sharp and Sanyo, but also with automotive giant Honda.
Honda announced the launch of Honda Soltec in 2006 and in 2011 the company announced that it will be releasing a thin film solar cell with a conversion efficiency of over 13%.
Another reason that Japanese solar companies are likely to remain competitive on the world stage is their willingness to cooperate.
In order to compete with China and other solar manufacturing countries, it was recently announced that about 20 Japanese solar manufacturers will form alliances in order to win bids for international solar projects.
The Japanese government is also playing an active role in helping these companies to win foreign contracts.
This willingness to cooperate or “play nice” might be an important element of Japan’s future success in solar manufacturing.
This is not to say that Japanese solar manufacturers are not facing some significant challenges. Despite the cooperation of Japanese solar firms, Chinese solar companies are presenting some pretty stiff competition.
One of the reasons for this is the relatively high cost of producing solar panels in Japan compared to other Asian countries. IMS Research has noted that the rise of low cost Chinese solar panels has taken away from Japan’s market share in the PV industry.
The Financial Times notes that “after accounting for nearly half of global solar panel output in 2005, Japanese manufacturers as a group saw their share plummet to 14 per cent by 2009”. Yikes!
Though Japan may have trouble competing on cost with Chinese solar companies, it could have better luck in competing against more expensive high efficiency solar panels.
The “HIT Double bifacial photovoltaic module” of Sanyo Solar combines crystalline silicon and amorphous silicon in a solar panel that generates electricity using the front and back of the module. This “two-faced” technology can lead to module efficiencies of over 20%.
The key for Sanyo and other Japanese solar companies will be justifying premium prices for their high quality solar modules. Companies in Japan are not alone in this fight.
As solar panels become commoditized the panels of different companies become largely interchangeable.
Therefore, if a company doesn’t want to keep cutting its prices in a “race to the bottom”, it has to come up with some good reasons for why people should be willing to pay more for its product.
As Eiji Hayashida, CEO of a large Japanese steel company points out, “Japanese companies are still basically hardware-focused, when innovation now means services, solutions, software, business models – a whole ecosystem”.
This is an important point not just for Japanese solar companies, but for solar energy companies all over the world.