What would Noah have thought?
In 2000, Sanyo claimed it wanted to create a 3.4 MW installation,
the world's largest PV system, as a »message to the 21st century.«
Instead, the 630 kW Solar Ark, dedicated on April 3, has become a
symbol of pragmatism by using modules with deficient power that were
headed for the junk heap.
Resources Total System Co. Ltd.
Ark-itechture: Even with 5,046 BIPV
monocrystalline modules, Sanyo's Solar Ark lacks the Solar
Wave, a sea of modules that were intended to be installed
in the current parking lot.
In biblical times, Noah was said to have used »gopher
wood« to build his ark.
While no one really knows what kind of tree it came from, it must have
been a good wood, the kind that could withstand torrential rains and
merciless floods. But one wonders how Noah would have responded to
Sanyo Electric Ltd.'s modern-day version of his construction, called
the Solar Ark. Unlike Noah's grand design, the 630 kW PV »vessel,«
located next to Sanyo's semiconductor factory in Gifu, Japan, doesn't
use state-of-the-art modules. Instead, the Solar Ark, which celebrated
its grand opening on April 3, is constructed to large extent from
factory rejects. What was intended as a testimonial to the future has
become a symbol of pragmatism.
Back in 2000, Sanyo decided to mark its half-century anniversary by
building the Mega Solar, a 3.4 MW monument to clean energy. It would
include a 1 MW Solar Ark, fronted by a Solar Wave with 1.8 MW, with
another 0.6 MW on the neighboring factory's roof. The installation was
to use Sanyo's highly efficient HIT cell technology, a hybrid of
crystal silicon and thin-film amorphous silicon assembled in modules
with current efficiencies ranging between 14 and 15 percent, the
planned successor to Sanyo's monocrystalline cells. The installation's
design was lauded by the president of Sanyo's subsidiary Soft Energy
Company, Toshimasa Iue, as »our message to the 21st century.« But soon
the message began to look bleak.
That October, a scandal started brewing in Japan. Sanyo was caught
illegally selling monocrystalline modules with insufficient output,
exceeding a government-mandated 10 percent negative tolerance by 3
percent. The then-president of Sanyo Solar, Minoru Hagiwara, had known
about the problem for two years, yet he continued to instruct
salespeople to market the potentially defective modules. He was
subsequently fired (see PI 11/2000, p. 26). A few days later, Sanyo
Electric president Sadao Kondo resigned. Japan's Ministry of Economy,
Trade and Industry (METI) considered filing a criminal complaint
against Sanyo Electric for allegedly falsifying labels on the modules.
In December, METI suspended the company's modules from the Japanese
subsidy program for three years.
System Co. Ltd.
PV trained: A speedy Bullet
train on the Shinkansen Tokaido railway line passes by
Sanyo's Solar Ark, giving passengers an excellent, if
fleeting, glimpse of a PV-powered future.
The Solar Ark - a symbol of sincere regret
That, says Yoshio Nagasuji, sales assistant in Sanyo's Clean Energy
division, is when plans for the Solar Ark began to assume another
guise. Instead of highlighting its new HIT technology by building what
was to be the world's largest PV system, the company decided to use
the Solar Ark to salvage the essentially useless monocrystalline
modules that were being taken back from customers in exchange for
normal ones. It is no coincidence that the number of recalled modules
- 5,476 - was only slightly greater than the 5,046 modules that ended
up on the monolith. By using the recall as an alternate means of »populating«
the Solar Ark, the company not only saved face, but a lot of money as
well. At the time of the scandal, the Financial Times estimated that
replacing the customers' modules would cost the company 500 million
JPY, about $4.6 million back then.
To Sanyo's credit, it has been very frank about reusing the
substandard modules, and about trying to regain customers' confidence.
»We have done this to show our sincere regret that this problem has
occurred,« reads a company message on the web page for the Solar Ark,
»and to express our willingness and determination to both remember
what happened and how important it is to maintain quality.«
Even in its diminished state, the Solar Ark has to be admired as one
of the most impressive BIPV structures in existence today, probably
doing a better job of promoting solar than any previous PV
installation. Passengers on high-speed bullet trains can't help but
notice the edifice as they ride past on a nearby railway line. The
curved structure has a length of 315 m; its highest point is 37 m. The
south-facing wall containing the modules, which are installed at an
angle of 81°, is 7,500 m˛. The modules also light up 77,220 LEDs
installed in a red Sanyo logo and a white »Solar Ark« sign. Below the
center portion of the Solar Ark, Sanyo has opened the Solar Lab, a
museum with information on solar energy, including exhibits for
And what about the Solar Wave, the sea of modules that were supposed
to front the Solar Ark? Nagasuji says Sanyo's chairman and founder,
Satoshi Iue, has told the Japanese media the company still intends to
install it where the parking lot now stands. »Maybe in two or three
years. But it's only a plan,« Nagasuji says somewhat ambiguously. What
would the capacity be? »Nobody knows,« he admits.
The only thing anyone knows at this point is that the Solar Ark is a
magnificent construction that has helped salvage Sanyo's damaged
reputation while giving the orphaned modules a safe home. That's a
goal even Noah could have appreciated.
© PHOTON International, June 2002