Sun power from the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan, the "Land of the Rising Sun," is looming on the horizon of yet another American market -- solar technology. Although Japan is still far from eclipsing American solar manufacturers, Japanese firms quietly have begun marketing research and sales in the United States within the past year. Within two to three years, Japan "could be a major force" in the American market, predicts Howard Kraye, vice-chairman of the California Solar Council.

For the Japanese, America represents a particularly enticing "market of the future," says a spokesman for Kyocera, a Japanese solar firm that has just decided to begin marketing research here. Specifically, the market is viewed as large, affluent, economically primed with tax- credit incentives, and a sure thing as rising energy costs keep nudging utility bills skyward.

And what the Japanese did with cameras and automobiles they could also do to solar technology.

"I'd say we're just as vulnerable in this as in cameras, radios, or anything else," says one American solar market consultant, who asks not to be identified. "They [the Japanese] decide to go after something, and they're pretty deter mined. They're good at determining what the product needs to be, and they're good at manufacturing. . . . And the Japanese are beautiful at marketing."

Unlike Japan's steel, auto, and microelectronics industries, Japanese solar firms have not received government subsidies.But the industry nonetheless has been propelled at a faster rate than its American counterpart, due largely to the energy crunch that has forced Japan, an oil pauper, to move rapidly in developing alternative energy resources.

Today, it is estimated, some 3 million Japanese homes have solar water heaters -- compared with the 75,000 to 100,000 solar units installed in California, the US leader in utilizing solar power. One firm, Yazaki, alone produces 28,000 "flat plate" panels a month, which is more than the total US annual production.

It is this experience -- which Japanese firms say puts their technology five years ahead of American solar products -- that Japan is hoping to bring to the US.

The Japanese are not expected to elbow Americans aside in producing photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight directly into electricity and which are still too expensive to market commercially. But they have taken a clear lead in solar air conditioning. And observers note that even though the "flat plate" system used for water heaters is a simple technology that does not vary, the Japanese -- with their highly lauded marketing expertise -- may have an edge over American firms in that product, as well.

So far, Yazaki is the only firm that has begun pushing sales in the US. According to Jim Clements, national sales manager for Texas-based American Yazaki, some 15 dealers have been signed up nationwide to handle Yazaki's solar air conditioning system, the only "packaged" or complete such system in the world. In addition, says Mr. Clements, American Yazaki is negotiating with a major housing tract developer on a deal involving the company's solar water heaters.

As with many Japanese products, key selling points for the country's solar technology is its quality, efficiency, and durability. "I can afford, as a businessman, to really stake my reputation on them," says Chuck Davis, president of Soltec Corporation, and American Yazaki's Arkansas dealer.

American solar manufacturers, meanwhile, are split in their reaction to the advent of Japanese competition. Some see the competition as a healthy battle, which ultimately will bring down solar prices. (Japanese solar products are expected to be competitively priced where there are similar US products.) Others question whether solar tax credits -- 15 percent on federal forms and an additional 40 percent in California -- should be offered on foreign-made products.

"It's an interesting question, 'What's the impact of competition?'" says George Tenet, director of photovoltaics and international programs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

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