Japanese Solar Summers May Trim Peak Fossil Fuel Power Costs

  • Solar generation accounted for 3.6% of Japan’s summer power
  • German peak power prices halved over 5 years amid solar use

Japan’s peak power prices may ease as the country’s solar-power expansion taps scorching summers to displace fossil fuels.

The resource-poor country, which has boosted solar capacity more than sevenfold since 2011, may follow a similar path as Germany, where electricity prices fell along with fossil fuel use during high consumption periods, according to Trevor Sikorski, an analyst at Energy Aspects Ltd. in London.

“Japanese power system is starting to mimic exactly what happened in the German power system following its burst of solar capacity development,” Sikorski said. “The summer demand peaks start to disappear, as solar powered generation meets most of the air-cooling demand that the country needs.”

Japan’s sun-generated output accounted for about 3.6 percent of total power production in the June-August period in 2015. That compares with the 3.1 average for the full year, up from 1.8 percent in 2014, as the country builds out its solar-generation capacity, according to government data.

For an article on Japan’s clean energy targets, click here.

Japan’s installed solar generation capacity stood at 36.5 gigawatts at the end of last year, compared with 5.2 gigawatts in 2011, according to data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. As a share of total generation capacity, Japan’s 16 percent is second only to Germany’s 21 percent, according to BNEF.

Solar projects typically generate power below nameplate capacity, compared to other sources such as coal or nuclear, because panels can only produce when the sun shines.

German power for delivery during peak demand lost half its value in the past five years as solar’s share in the generation mix tripled to almost 6 percent. For the one hour starting at noon, average prices last year fell to about 32 euros ($36.48) per megawatt hour, from almost 41 euros in 2013. This has helped push many gas-fired power plants, which would traditionally produce during demand peaks, into mothballing.

While Japan’s solar development has increased significantly since the introduction of a feed-in tariff program in 2012, only about a third of government approved projects are generating power.

The world’s third-largest economy is aiming to derive about 7 percent of its electricity from solar by 2030, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The country may reach its target as early as 2018, driven by both projects linked to the power grid as well as individual rooftop panels, according to Ali Izadi-Najafabadi, a Tokyo-based analyst at BNEF.

While that may cut power prices in Japan, it could also be bad news for fossil fuel producers who supply the world’s biggest liquefied natural gas buyer and third-biggest coal importer.

Spot LNG in Asia has already fallen more than 65 percent since September 2014, and coal prices are down about 40 percent since the end of 2013, amid global supply gluts. Demand for those fuels tend to peak in summer and winter in most of the biggest markets for cooling and heating.

Japan Solar Installations

Gas turbines and oil-fired plants tend to operate to meet peak demand, analysts at Energy Aspects wrote in a May 23 note. “The size of peak summer demand has been shrinking, driven by a strong build up in solar power generation,” they wrote. “As such, less generation from both sources should be expected.”

Growing using of renewable energy sources will reduce the need for fossil fuels to meet seasonal peaks, according to James Taverner, an analyst for IHS Inc. in Tokyo. “This is already making a small difference in Japan’s fossil fuel needs, and the impact will be greater as renewables become a larger share of the overall total.”

Besides solar, the return of Japan’s nuclear power and overall declining consumption will also cut back fossil fuel demand in the summer, according to BNEF’s Izadi-Najafabadi.

“This summer Japan will have two reactors on online, more solar online and power consumption is going down,” he said. “That kills off some demand from fossil fuels.”

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