Japan's solar energy shines a light

A worker staples a roll of photovoltaic solar panels on a roof of a warehouse in Laudu-LaArdoise, France, in February 2008.

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TESS VIGELAND: President Barack Obama heads to Copenhagen this coming week, pledging the U.S. will reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. If you're looking for a way to help, you might think about installing solar panels on your roof. I, for one, would love to do this. But I won't, because it is ridiculous expensive. If I lived in Japan, however, I might think differently. Almost two decades' worth of cost-cutting have made solar affordable for the middle class.

Rob Schmitz of station KQED tells us the Land of the Rising Sun could have some lessons for the U.S.


Rob Schmitz: Travis Pike just had solar panels installed on his home here in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. Now, he finds himself tinkering with a control panel on the side of his house at least a few times a day.

Travis Pike: Now, if you look in here, CO2 saved: 1,757 pounds.

For Pike, this panel represents a victory of good over evil. And he's not talking about the fight against global warming. When Pike wanted to install solar panels, his homeowners' association nixed the idea, saying they'd ruin the neighborhood's historic feel. Pike fought back. In the end, the association let him install the panels, on the shady side of the house

Pike: It's not the ideal situation for me for generating the power, but at least I'm able to do some.

"Some" doesn't cut it for Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar. If the obstacle isn't a preservation zone, he complains, it's reams of paperwork that take weeks to fill out.

Barry Cinnamon: The amount of paperwork we've had to go through has gone up, probably tripled, over the last nine years. Every single sheet of paper had a reason, but nobody sat down and said, "Is this really important?"

Cinnamon estimates the cost to cut through all this red tape makes up a quarter of the price of an average solar installation.

Cinnamon: This is no more difficult than putting an air conditioner on my house. As it gets really simple, the absurdity of all the paperwork and questions is, I think, going to provide some pressure to make it easier.

And that's exactly what has already happened in Japan.

This cramped office in Tokyo is the seat of a solar rebellion. It's the headquarters for Japan's Photovoltaic Owners Network. Fifteen years ago, when Japan started offering subsidies for solar panels, homeowners were burdened with the same requirements as a large-scale utility: permits, blueprints, inspections, lots of paperwork.

Network president Ken Tsuzuku says all this bureaucracy sparked a public outcry that led to the creation of his group.

Ken Tsuzuku: We appealed to the government to eliminate this cumbersome process, and after two years of fighting, they finally got rid of these requirements. That significantly reduced the amount of paperwork that was required.

And that, in turn, says Tsuzuku, brought down the installation price. A typical five-kilowatt roof-top solar array costs up to $10,000 less in Japan than it does in the U.S. But some in Japan don't need to install anything.

A couple of hours south of Tokyo in the city of Machida, Atsuko Sugawara pours tea for her husband Jun. The tea was heated with electricity generated by solar panels, which are built into their new prefabricated home; manufactured homes with solar panels are gaining popularity here. Next month, Japan will begin a program that allows homeowners to sell solar power they don't use to utilities.

Mr. Sugawara is excited.

Jun Sugawara: This means that I'll be able to pay off the price of my solar panels in just seven years. After that, I'll start making a profit.

Sugawara figures he'll make $1,500 a year from the sun. He's not alone. News of Japan's new solar incentive has spurred 50,000 households here to install solar panels in the past six months -- that's more than the total number of homes in California that have solar panels.

L.A. resident Travis Pike wishes it were that easy to install solar here in the U.S. Remember, he's the homeowner who had to spend time and money to appease his skeptical neighborhood association.

Travis: Personally, individually, as a homeowner, I feel like it is an intrusion on my rights. This is the modern age, the world is asking us to put in solar panels.

And the key to accomplishing that in the U.S., Pike says, is to get out of our own way.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace Money.

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