The global solar industry aims at Japan

Japan plans to close its last nuclear reactor this weekend, a move that will take nuclear power out of its energy supply for the first time since 1966. Among those who will celebrate the news will be solar companies as Japan gets ready to boost its renewable energy production and open up its market more to non-Japanese players.

The Japanese government is set to start a major incentive program for clean power this July, roughly a year after it passed legislation to create the program. The incentives will come in the form of guaranteed, premium prices that utilities must pay for renewable energy such as solar, wind, geothermal. Under a proposal, solar electricity could fetch roughly twice the price that Japanese households currently pay for power, Reuters reported.

“What we are most bullish on is the Japanese market,” said Smittipon Srethapramote, vice president of research at Morgan Stanley, when he was asked about solar market growth worldwide at a Greentech Media’s solar conference panel in Phoenix this week (via webcast). “Traditionally it’s been a closed market, where you can only buy Japanese. But 20 percent of the (solar panel) sales were from foreign companies in 2011.”

Some solar companies have increased their sales efforts in Japan. China-based Yingli Green Energy (s YGE) announced on Friday that it’s set up a Japanese subsidiary. SunPower’s (s SPWR) CEO, Tom Werner, told analyst during a conference call on Thursday that Japan is the company’s largest market in Asia, and it shipped “record volumes” during the first quarter of this year. SunPower has a supply deal with Toshiba.

The CEO of China-based Trina Solar (s TSL), Gao Jifan, told Dow Jones in March that he expected “sales to Japan to grow aggressively in 2012.”

Suntech Power (s STP), another big Chinese solar panel maker, made a go at the Japanese market when it bought a Japanese solar panel maker, MSK, in 2006. Japan was a hot market then, thanks to government incentives, though it has since moved down in the world market ranking when the government cut subsidies in the mid-2000s. Japanese solar panel makers also began their slide in the ranking of solar cell and panel makers as Chinese companies and Arizona-based First Solar (s FSLR) began to significantly boost their production and sales. Until 2007, Sharp was No. 1 and Kyocera No. 3. In 2011, Sharp was No. 6 and Kyocera No. 10.

Although Suntech has been selling far more solar panels to other countries such as Germany, Italy and the United States, it’s increased sales to Japan. Revenues from Japan reached $143.9 million in 2011, up from $134.2 million in 2010 and $81.6 million in 2009, according to its annual report.

Sharp and Kyocera will still enjoy some home-court advantage, but they will face stronger competition from other solar energy equipment makers as Japanese developers and banks gear up for building big solar projects. Both solar panel makers already have teamed up with developers to build projects. Some banks and developers have announced projects but haven’t named their suppliers (see our chart tracking some of the proposed projects).

Photo courtesy of Solar Frontier.