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Climate Change

Japan pushes solar panel mandate for new public buildings

Proposal to require installations on all buildings, including homes, is dropped

The Ministry of Environment estimates that public buildings can fit the equivalent of nearly a third of all solar power capacity that currently exists in Japan.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan should require solar panels installations on all new public buildings as the country ramps up efforts to promote renewable energy toward its goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a plan presented by the government on Thursday.

But a proposal to mandate solar panels for all new buildings, public and private including homes, was not included in the plan -- for now.

The draft plan was presented to an expert panel hosted by the infrastructure, economy and environment ministries. The government said it will "make the installation of solar panels a standard" at new schools, cultural facilities, government offices and other public buildings.

A timeline and other details will be ironed out later.

Reducing the carbon footprint in the construction sector is a major step toward Japan's emissions goals. The sector was responsible for 352 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in fiscal 2019, accounting for 34% of the national total and making it the largest emitter after the industrial sector.

The proposal also pushed to accelerate solar panel installations on existing government-connected buildings. The Ministry of Environment estimates that roughly 19,000 megawatts of solar power capacity can be placed at public buildings nationwide, or the equivalent of about 30% of solar capacity that already exists in Japan.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi had told Nikkei in April that Japan should require solar panels on new homes and buildings, and the ministry strongly advocated for the idea as part of the proposal. But it was ultimately shelved in the face of resistance from panel members.

"There are significant discrepancies in the effectiveness of solar panels depending on the region and location, so it will be difficult to impose a blanket requirement," one said.

Despite hitting pause on home solar panels, the government plans to require new housing to meet the same energy-saving standards that took effect in April for new commercial spaces of 300 sq. meters or more. It will evaluate the necessary legislative amendments to make this happen.

Super-insulated walls and windows, efficient climate control systems, LED lighting and other upgrades needed to meet the new standard will roughly add 110,000 yen ($1,000) to the cost of building an average home, the infrastructure ministry estimates. It will take 37 years for energy savings to offset this cost, so the government will consider subsidies and other assistance to help close the gap.

The government is considering introducing even tougher requirements, starting at large buildings that are ahead in adopting energy-saving measures. It will weigh rules that are specific to the size and purpose of the space.

It will also create a standardized label for buildings that satisfy energy-saving requirements, which could be used in real estate advertisements and other uses.

Still, reducing the carbon footprint of existing housing remains a major challenge. Over 80% of new construction already meet the energy-saving standards the government plans to impose on newly built homes, while just 11% of the roughly 50 million existing homes do. Increasing that figure will require a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes, and raising greater awareness both among the public and among businesses will be key to the government's decarbonization efforts.

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