In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident solar energy as a concept has become more attractive to the average person, and the central government’s recent passage of a law to promote renewable energies should help make solar power more widespread. Of course, solar power isn’t perfect, but not so much for the reasons nuclear apologists put forth. For instance, those who say solar energy is basically inefficient point to the fact that the electricity generated by household solar collectors is the equivalent in power of only 10 percent of the energy collected. This is a specious argument since sunlight is, for the time being at least, free, so we’re talking 10 percent of something that is constant and endless and which, untapped, just vanishes into the ether. It’s not like wasting the potential energy derived from gas or oil, since those are by definition finite energy sources.
The problem with solar energy is mainly a political one. According to the renewable energy law, which was sent to the cabinet for approval a day before the earthquake of March 11, power companies are obliged to buy excess energy from home solar systems. Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced last spring that it would buy electricity derived from solar collectors from private homes at double its usual rate. What the utility didn’t say so openly was that this expense would be reflected in electricity bills for all TEPCO customers. One of the main selling points of home solar systems is that, over time, the sale of excess energy to power companies would pay for the systems themselves, which are very expensive, though prices are coming down. People of limited means, which probably describes most households these days, can’t enjoy such benefits because they can’t afford to install solar systems. In the end, they help pay for the systems of the more well-off through their electric bills, not to mention schemes like eco points, which use tax money. So while some may claim that the greater good — greater reliance on solar energy — is worth it, the policy as it’s now carried out is inherently unfair.
A more equitable idea at the household level is using sunlight for heating rather than generating electricity. Solar collectors for heating water have been commercially available for years, and in terms of efficiency — 40 percent — beat out solar collectors for electricity. Since 2009, the Tokyo metropolitan government has been planning to subsidize solar collectors for home heating purposes. They will give people up to ¥500,000 if they install a solar heater in a new house. Condominium builders will also receive some kind of incentive. Recently, Tokyo solicited solar heater manufacturers, 60 of whom applied for approval. Fifty-one were selected whose products will be eligible for the subsidies.
It is the first time a local government has encouraged through subsidies the installation of solar heaters, which have never been so popular even though they are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. The hot water that is produced can not only be used for baths, showers and washing, but also for room heating if the home has a radiant heating system installed in the baseboards or the floors. Such systems, of course, can help households save on energy bills and do not produce extra carbon dioxide, which is the main benefit for Tokyo since local governments have been charged by the government with reducing their carbon output. More important, these savings are not at the expense of other households who do not have the system installed. Solar heating is self-contained, and therefore self-reliant.