Electric cars get a closer look in Japan after nuclear crisis

Electric cars have been getting more attention as power-saving becomes a the new buzzword in Japan.

By , Reuters

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    Electric cars getting more attention in Japan: Nissan Motor Co. chief vehicle engineer Hidetoshi Kadota demonstrates a quick charge of a Nissan Leaf by a solar-assisted EV charging system at Nissan's global headquarters in Yokohama, Japan, Monday.
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With the country steeped in power-saving mode, energy generation has become all the rage among Japanese automakers.

Nissan Motor Co on Monday unveiled a new charging system that gets electricity from solar power that can also be stored in the lithium-ion batteries used in its Leaf electric car.

The 488 newly installed solar panels at Nissan's global headquarters will produce enough electricity to charge 1,800 Leafs a year, allowing drivers plugging into one of its seven charging spots to travel on carbon-free energy.

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Nissan's announcement comes just days after Mitsubishi Motors Corp said it would develop and market this business year a portable converter with enough capacity to allow its electric vehicles (EVs) to power household electronics such as rice cookers and washing machines.

Japanese automakers have been working on clean-energy initiatives for years, but the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 have made electricity supply and sourcing an immediate concern.

"Setsuden," or power-saving, has become a buzzword in Japan, where the disasters crippled a nuclear reactor and triggered the worst radiation crisis since Chernobyl. Starting this month, big-lot electricity users in eastern Japan are required to cut peak consumption by 15 percent during the hot summer months, and utilities have also appealed to households to do their part.

Through a joint venture set up last year with Sumitomo Corp, Nissan plans to re-fabricate and resell its electric cars' high-capacity batteries as power storage units when the car is traded in or scrapped starting in 2016.

"These batteries can be useful as back-up power for homes when there's an outage," said Takashi Sakagami, head of the joint venture, 4R Energy Corp. The firm is targeting cumulative sales equivalent to 100,000 electric cars' worth of second-life batteries in 2020.

Two weeks ago, Toyota Motor Corp began a test-run of a model home that manages electricity consumption and taps into weather forecasts to maximize the use of solar power. A separate battery unit, much like 4R Energy's and manufactured by Toyota affiliate Denso Corp, can be used to store cheaper, night-time electricity when the weather is forecast to be overcast the following day.

"Electricity has become a major issue and people are in 'setsuden' mode, but we want to develop a system that doesn't ask people to endure too much discomfort," Toyota's project manager Hiroshi Okajima said.

The project, led by Toyota City and comprising about two dozen companies, will run a trial through 67 houses to be sold by Toyota's housing unit, Toyota Home, by the end of 2013. With deregulation, the "smart home" concept could be linked up to the grid, allowing whole communities to share clean electricity and rely less on the traditional grid, officials said.

Honda Motor Co, which already makes solar panels, will follow on Wednesday with a briefing on its latest cogeneration unit that runs on natural or propane gas.

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