Tokyo Hopes Rooftop Solar Mandate Will Help It Get Through Hot Summers
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Tokyo Hopes Rooftop Solar Mandate Will Help It Get Through Hot Summers

Like California, the Japanese capital wants the sun to power new homes, but some call policy ineffective and too reliant on China

Sat, Aug 19, 2023 7:30amGrey Clock 4 min

TOKYO—Heat waves this summer are pushing Tokyo’s power grid near the limit. The city of 14 million has mandated installing solar panels on new single-family homes to get some breathing room—even if it has to buy most of the panels from China.

The policy in one of the world’s largest metropolises is a test case for whether solar power makes sense on urban rooftops. The idea has long drawn attention as a way to fight global warming but has advanced relatively slowly worldwide, apart from a rooftop solar mandate in California pushed by Democratic Govs. Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom.

“We need to prepare to protect not only our national security, but also the energy security of individual households,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, the architect of the mandate, said in an interview.

Koike has had panels on her own house for a decade. As a government minister, she created a “Cool Biz” plan that led Japanese salarymen to ditch suits and ties in summertime so they could keep the thermostat higher.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, Koike said, “we unfortunately aren’t rich in oil and gas, but wouldn’t it be fitting if we could instead harness the sun?”

Proponents say more rooftop solar would help on hot summer days when electricity demand peaks, and make the city resilient if an earthquake or typhoon knocked out the power grid.

The downsides: More solar also means higher electricity bills, including for lower-income apartment dwellers, because homeowners with rooftop panels can sell their excess power to the grid at an above-market rate. Even with the mandate, solar power generated in Tokyo is projected to supply only 4% of the city’s electricity in 2030.

“We cannot have a sufficient amount of power generation just by having solar panels on limited rooftops,” said Tatsuya Terazawa, head of the government-affiliated Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.

Still, Koike said it is important to move toward carbon-neutral electricity and help Japan buy less Russian natural gas.

The city predicts that by 2050, half of Tokyo’s current structures will be replaced. “By targeting newly built houses, we can decide the future 50 years from now,” Koike said.

Tokyo’s mandate, released last December, will initially apply only to about 50 of the largest home builders in the city, which it says account for around three-fifths of new homes. Starting in April 2025, those builders will be given a quota that will in effect require them to put panels on most new homes, while allowing them leeway to forgo solar in cases where the roof is too small or lacks sunlight exposure.

“We want companies to make sure that wherever you can put them, you put as many as you can,” said city environmental official Toshifumi Fukuyasu.

Japan relies on imported natural gas and coal for most of its electricity, and Russia supplies about one-tenth of its natural gas. The power company serving the capital, Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco, isn’t operating any nuclear plants currently after the meltdowns at its Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011.

In March 2022, the city came dangerously close to running short of electricity on a cold day, and it faced another crunch months later during a heat wave.

Tepco has managed to keep the lights on this summer, despite weeks of sweltering weather in which the thermometer consistently topped 95 degrees. Still, it says it worries about electricity running short, and the city encourages people to keep their homes at 82 degrees.

Tokyo University professor Yumiko Iwafune, who studies energy demand, said that even if rooftop solar panels don’t generate much electricity overall, they still can help households become self-sufficient on summer days, lessening demand on Tepco.

Tokyo has drawn comparisons between its policy and California’s rooftop solar mandate, which took effect in 2020 and similarly applies to new low-rise residential buildings. The California Energy Commission estimates that 150,000 new homes covered by the law have been constructed with solar panels.

Newsom, the governor, said in May 2022 that rooftop solar is “an industry that is essential to our state’s future.” California expanded its mandate last year to encompass certain new commercial buildings.

But the state’s mandate is contentious even among advocates of renewable energy, some of whom say it would be cheaper to build large solar and wind installations.

James Bushnell, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis, said rooftop solar mandates tend to raise electricity bills for people who don’t have solar because grid operators often pay higher prices for home-generated electricity. “A large ‘benefit’ of solar is in fact a shift of costs onto other, often lower-income non-home owning customers,” Bushnell wrote in an email.

Another problem in Japan is its lack of domestically produced solar panels, although it was once a leader in the technology.

According to the International Energy Agency, China produces around 85% of the globe’s solar cells and 95% of key components needed to make them.

“We’ve realised we can’t win against China,” said a spokesman for the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association, an industry group representing companies in the solar-energy business.

Unlike the U.S., Japan still permits the import of solar panels with materials sourced from China’s Xinjiang region, where the U.S. has alleged the Beijing government has carried out genocide against the Uyghur ethnic group. Beijing denies that.

“Most people aren’t very aware about the human-rights violations associated with solar panels. They think of it as a good thing because of the environment,” said Taishi Sugiyama, a research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, a Tokyo-based think tank. He said Tokyo should scrap its solar mandate.

Fukuyasu, the Tokyo city official, said he agreed Japan needed more suppliers of solar panels. “But in Tokyo, we need solar to create a zero-emission society, and we can’t postpone that,” he said.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Car Dealers on Why Some Customers Hesitate With EVs

Concern about electric vehicles’ appeal is mounting as some customers show a reluctance to switch

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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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