"Solar City" proves allure of sun's energy in Japan

Tue Nov 11, 2008 6:20am EST
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By Mayumi Negishi

OTA, Japan (Reuters Life!) - Solar panels glisten across Ota City's tiny Pal Town neighborhood, nestled among strawberry fields in one of Japan's sunniest spots, a testament to the allure of renewable energy in this resource-poor country.

Three-quarters of Pal Town's homes are covered by solar panels, which are distributed for free and have become one of the main draw-cards for residents keen to minimize their power bills.

"We moved here because of the panels -- it was something we wanted, but not something we could afford on our own," said resident Mika Hiroshima, who moved to Ota with her husband and two small children in early 2005. "It just doesn't pay."

Located 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Tokyo, the 41 hectare (10 acre) Pal Town, dubbed "Solar City," received free solar panels from 2002 through a 9.7 billion yen state-backed study on how to ensure a steady supply and avoid blackouts. Lots of small solar power generators are connected to the power grid.

But that power is unreliable in cloudy Japan. At high noon in sunny weather, a 4-kilowatt rooftop power generator produces more than enough power to run a typical household. But in cloudy weather, the power generated is less than half.

Officials also say that without a comprehensive strategy involving both corporations and local government, expanding the solar grid to other parts of the country would be difficult.

"People want solar power," said Kazuo Nagashima, an Ota City assistant section manager. Virtually all 550 families that now have solar panels in Pal Town say they want to keep them after the tests end in March 2010. "But local governments can do very little on their own."


<p>Solar powered houses are pictured in Ota, 80km northwest of Tokyo October 28, 2008. Ota is testimony to the allure of renewable energy to the energy conscious in resource-poor Japan, but also its high cost to the debt-saddled nation. Picture taken October 28, 2008. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao</p>