Japan in love with solar, out of love with golfing?

Two seemingly unrelated developments are becoming intimately linked in the land of the rising sun: the closing down of golf courses and the emergence of large scale solar PV plants.

It started to dawn upon me that this might be a 'thing', since today and yesterday two very similar headlines popped up:

Takara Leben Developing 15MW Solar Plant on Former Golf Course

9 December - Bloomberg -http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-09/takara-leben-developing-15mw-solar-plant-on-former-golf-course.html

GE Financing 42-Megawatt Solar Project Atop Golf Course in Japan

10 December - Bloomberg - http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-10/ge-financing-42-megawatt-solar-project-atop-golf-course-in-japan.html

Then I remembered seeing similar headlines back in June.

Abandoned Fukushima Golf Course to Turn Into Solar-Power Plant

3 June - Bloomberg - http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-03/abandoned-fukushima-golf-course-to-turn-into-solar-power-plant.html

Orix Begins 51MW Solar Farm on Former Golf Course in Japan

4 June - Bloomberg - http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-04/orix-begins-51mw-solar-farm-on-former-golf-course-in-japan.html

What's up with all these golf courses closing? And why are solar plants popping up on those sites? (OK, the one closing in Fukushima seems te speak for itself).

Are the Japanese done with golfing? According to LPGA (The Ladies' Professional Golf Association), Japan was still very much in love with golf in 2012. 

Japan loves golf. Even more, Japan loves its golfers.

“I think the Japanese people are very passionate about the game,” says Ai Miyazato, who represents her country with the world No. 8 ranking. “I feel that the Japanese fans have tremendous respect for professional golfers but I really don’t know where it comes from.

“Maybe because golf plays an important role in business in Japan. Every weekend golf is on TV, so I think people are used to having golf in their lives.”
— Mick Elliott - LPGA

The Japan Times had an even more detailed answer on the question why Japanese seem to love golf.

Think about a Japanese garden. You have your manicured trees and your sculptured ponds and your raked over rocks. And all of it manufactured. Japanese gardens are like starlets with implants. Eye-grabbing? Yes. Natural? No.

Now think about a golf course. The designed fairways, the clipped greens and the raked over bunkers all echo the artificial essence of a Japanese garden. So no wonder people here love being on the links.

Just like they love holding the club and swinging away. For this has deep ties with Japanese psychology.

Why? Because the key to Japanese fixation with order and rules can be connected to the diligence of kanji practice. Proper stroke order and form are hammered into students when young. So that kanji become the jello mold for the nation’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with detail.

Back to golf. Where form is critical. The stance, the swing, the follow through! Again, no wonder Japanese love it!
— Thomas Dillon - Japan Times

But if they love it so much, why does it seem like there are so many golf courses closing down? It puzzles me... PV-Tech simply blames it on the economy. That's always an answer... 

The country is traditionally extremely keen on golf, with the sport often woven into the social structures of corporate life and lengthy waiting lists for golf club memberships. Nonetheless, in years of economic downturn, golf courses, along with many of the theme parks that Japan was briefly obsessed with building in the boom years, have been losing money and many have gone bust.
— Andy Colthorpe - PV-Tech

Enough about golf though! The great thing about these golf courses closing down, is that large swathes of land, mostly flat or semi-artificially hilly, become available for redevelopment. In a land where finding the space for large scale solar projects is quite hard - so hard that they're even constructing artificial islands (like this one) and floating solar plants (like these) - this provides great opportunities. 

From that perspective it isn't that surprising that when a golf course closes down in Japan, there will be a solar developer at the front of the line to claim the land. These projects can be built extremely fast and start generating income within a short period. 

As a complete non-golf-enthousiast I can't say I'm sad to see these golf courses close down. In my opinion, the land is being put to much better use! When you're aiming to steal the gold medal from China and become the world's largest solar market, you need all the land you can get your hands on (and China has plenty). 


One of our contacts in Japan has taken the time to elaborate on the subject and give some more answers regarding this amazing phenomenon!

Hi Solarplaza,

Of all the large (>10 MW) projects that are under development in Japan, maybe half of them are located on golf courses.

During the ‘bubble years’ a LOT of golf courses were built here, over 2000 in total. The costs to buy the land required for these courses were immense and in many cases the area had to be flattened to make construction possible. During the last ten years, the popularity of golf has in fact dropped. It used to be the case that a golf club membership was almost a requirement to be able to network with clients and relations. During the ‘bubble days’ buying yourself into one of the premium clubs could cost you up to $100,000.

Now that ‘boom’ is over and the revenues of these golf courses have plummeted. I think nearly half of the courses are operating at losses, so many owners of these facilities see the solar boom as a chance to quit the golf business and sell the land. They can get between $6m and $10m just for the land when they sell it to a developer. Apart from project developers there are few other takers for the land, ‘cause: what else would you want to do with it? Nobody wants to live in those areas and there are plenty of hotels and recreational facilities in Japan. Those golf courses can be somewhere around 100 hectares big, but a lot of that land is hilly. This means the average golf course can just about facilitate a 20MW solar plant. 90% of Japan’s surface is hilly or mountaineous. Most of the other 10% is taken up by agriculture and residential areas. The big golf courses are therefore ideal solar plant locations. License-wise it’s also very doable to transform a golf course into a power generating solar facility.

Golfing with clients and partners costs a lot of time, often taking up a day, as most courses are located over an hour away from Tokyo. That’s one of the reasons its popularity is demising.
Another fun fact: did you know that Japan is officially the country with the most kilometres of skiing slopes? That’s another inheritance of the ‘bubble days’ during which Japanese developers thought that every project (be it a building, golf course or skiing slope) could only increase in value over time. Many of those skiing slopes are now abandoned as well.

Anyway. Redeveloping golf courses into solar plants in Japan is a rather unique phenomenon worldwide. I think you’ll be seeing a LOT more of these projects anounced in press releases over the coming years.
— Eduard Talman - Managing Director, NEXPV K.K.

Thank you very much Eduard! (to repay the favour, I'll just quickly mention that Eduard's company - NEXPV K.K. - is an international company based in Tokyo that specializes in getting foreign PV power plant developers started in the Japanese market) 

It's a shame that it'll be a lot harder to put solar panels on all those abandoned skiing slopes
(unless of course they are facing the exact right direction, in which case you can save on racking systems). ;-)

So to finally answer the question: BOTH!
Japan is falling out of love with golf and is deeply enamoured with Solar!