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Special to The Register: Japanese take great leap forward

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Solar cells are on the verge of becoming economical enough to be used in both commercial and domestic environments. And panels that will power satellite phones and notebooks are in production. But the economies of scale are such that it may be two or three years before manufacturers, including Siemens and Japanese company Kyocera, can make them cheap enough. The photo-electric cells depend on high quality silicon which is still expensive, despite the pervasiveness of sand everywhere. Refining the sand to a point where it can become a PnP reality, and so economical, costs money. However, the Japanese government has already subsidised 10,000 households to the tune of ¥1 million to install systems on their roofs which cost ¥3 million. These systems are a microcosm of other, commercial systems, pervasively used in the Japanese islands. In Japan, the solar panels are used by the prefectures in every place where light can be received, for example on the top of lamp posts and also street furniture of all types. In the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto, a corporation called Kyocera has built a structure of 12 stories and on its south facing side has solar panels which create ice for air conditioning and in summer, at least, supplies most of its electricity needs. Any remaining is sold to the local power grid. The Kyocera building rivals an ancient Samurai castle, which towers below it across the valley. Kyocera said that its Shinga plant by next year will be the biggest manufacturer of solar panels in the world. It has even built a four metre square panel for its Iridium satellite phone, the planetwide system which is strongly rumoured to be subsidised by American agency the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). But, so far, the use of solar energy is minimal in the West, which is still relying on more traditional types of energy. ®

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