Utility leaders on a recent fact-finding mission to Japan led by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) returned with a wealth of new contacts and a refreshed outlook on the solar power market here in the United States. Based on the observation that Japan appears to have embraced solar at the consumer, manufacturing and national policy levels, many of the participants described their renewed sense that the U.S. is also on the right track, with growing utility integration and an interest in more domestic manufacturing.

"Overall, the Japanese market today is about on par with the U.S. market in terms of solar capacity," said Julia Hamm, President and CEO of SEPA, who led the delegation. "But the Japanese have excelled at using their own, home-grown green technology."

"Ninety percent of what was installed in Japan in 2009 was sourced from Japanese manufacturers," said Hamm.

SEPA, an educational non-profit focused on helping utilities integrate solar into their energy portfolios, led 18 utility executives and managers to Japan on its third annual Solar Fact Finding Mission from July 25 to 30. While abroad, the delegation met with Japanese utilities, government officials, researchers, and solar companies and toured manufacturing facilities, commercial installations and research facilities.

"There's no doubt that the growth of the Japanese solar power market is helped by the policy initiatives being advanced by the Japanese government," said David Rubin, SEPA Chairman and Director of Service Analysis at Pacific Gas and Electric Company. "Growth in the U.S. market is strong, but tends to be driven more by state-specific programs, and less by the type of national program we saw in Japan."

In terms of the relative size of the two markets, the growth in the U.S. is expected to outpace Japan in the near future.

"The U.S. is likely to be among the largest solar markets in the world in the next two to three years," said Hamm. "In fact, one interesting note from our trip is how eager the Japanese manufacturers are to do business here and to form relations with U.S. utilities."