Japan jostles for the clean energy lead

Japan’s renewable energy tariffs, combined with a little reported push on energy storage batteries, could place it in a league of its own in the clean energy sector. Meanwhile, EVs are making a bigger impact in the US.

That Japan launched its generous feed-in tariff scheme for solar, wind, biomass and geothermal on July 1 is well-known. It made another announcement last week on energy-storage batteries that could place it in an altogether different league in the clean energy industry.

The storage market would grow to 20 trillion yen ($250 billion) by 2020 and Japan could take 50 per cent of the market, a report from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said. Its share last year was 18 per cent of the 5.2 trillion yen market.

Storage batteries are used in electric cars, and also enable the delayed consumption of renewable electricity. A solar plant with storage for instance would make possible consumption of solar power at night when there is no sun.

"If we keep promoting renewables, the stability of power systems may be at risk and surplus power may be wasted. Storage batteries are one solution," the ministry said. It also set targets for efficiency improvements and for cost declines in the installation of batteries.

A different kind of storage made the headlines in the UK, as bidding closed for a £1 billion ($1.55 billion) carbon-capture support program. The Department of Energy and Climate Change said that it had received signals of "significant interest" in the three months that the bidding window was open. A decision on the projects to fund will be announced later this year.

The International Energy Agency released its renewable capacity projections for the next five years and estimated the addition of 710GW by 2017, and the displacement of Europe as the centre of clean energy activity. China will account for 40 per cent of the addition, at 270GW, followed by the US with 56GW, India with 39GW, Germany with 32GW and Brazil also with 32GW, the IEA said.

By 2017, at least 70 countries will have 100MW of wind capacity, and 45 countries would have 100MW of solar PV, it said.

Roll-backs on renewable energy incentives continued in Europe. Bulgaria slashed by more than half the incentive tariffs for ground-mounted PV plants and shaved off a quarter for wind power plants from July 1.

Bulgarians were also hit by a 13 per cent increase in electricity prices this month. The State Commission for Energy and Water Regulation blamed the increase on the larger share of clean energy in the mix.

The slide in solar panel prices claimed another factory in the US, in this case one being built by General Electric. The company announced that it was suspending construction of its thin-film solar factory in Colorado – slated to be the biggest in the country.

There was traction visible in the electric vehicles market in the US. Sales of Chevrolet Volts more than tripled to 1,760 in June – from 561 a year earlier – and reached 8,817 in the first half. Toyota sold 695 units of its plug-in Prius last month. Nissan's Leaf hatchback however, saw a 69 per cent dip in June to 535 units as it made changes to its sales strategy.

Electric cars will get a dash of glamour soon, when actor Leonardo DiCaprio promotes the Karma sedan from Fisker Automotive as an environmentally-friendly vehicle. DiCaprio is an equity investor in the maker of luxury plug-in hybrid cars.

More than 1,000 Karmas have been delivered by Fisker in the US and Europe since December. Priced at over $US100,000, the Karma is able to travel up to 50 miles on a single charge, before the gasoline engine is activated.

EU carbon market

After a month of steady rises, European carbon allowances, or EUAs, for December 2012 delivery ran out of steam last week with weak economic figures in the US and EU. EUAs lost 2.2 per cent last week, closing at €8.07/tonne, compared with €8.28/t at the end of the previous week.

Lower US jobs figures than expected helped to unsettle markets. Weaker economic data puts in question the strength of demand for power, and hence demand for emission allowances.

Meanwhile, the EU confirmed it would allocate free permits to power stations in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania during the third phase of the bloc’s cap-and-trade scheme starting in 2013. United Nations Certified Emission Reduction credits, or CERs, for December 2012 sank 6.7 per cent last week to close at €3.90/t, down from €4.18/t the week before.