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Softbank to build experimental solar plant

Japan's Softbank President Masayoshi Son at a Tokyo hotel 23 October 2006.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images/Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Softbank, Japan's third largest mobile carrier, plans to build an experimental solar power plant on the nation's northern island of Hokkaido this year, kicking off a renewable energy project prompted by the country's nuclear crisis.

Softbank pledged in May to commit hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to boost a lagging renewable energy sector after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered a long-running crisis at a nuclear plant in Fukushima, north of Tokyo, sparking a backlash against atomic power.

Softbank's billionaire president Masayoshi Son said an enthusiastic response from local governments meant the project would likely result in more than the initially planned 10 solar plants of about 20 MW each.

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"We want to create model projects and hope this will encourage other businesspeople to enter the industry," Mr. Son told reporters following a meeting of prefectural governors.

A Nikkei report in May said the plants would cost around $100-million U.S. each, with Softbank to fund about 10 per cent of the cost of the solar power plants, local governments paying ¥100 million ($1.3-million U.S.) for each facility, and bank loans covering the rest. Mr. Son has not confirmed these details.

A charismatic entrepreneur who built Yahoo Japan into the country's biggest broadband provider, Mr. Son has become a prominent and powerful advocate of alternative energy in the world's No.3 economy.

Thirty-five of Japan's 47 prefectures have agreed to join Mr. Son's clean energy group, which called for the passage of a bill requiring the power sector to buy electricity from a wider range of renewable sources through a generous feed-in tariff, a subsidy paid by end-users.

Mr. Son also said he wanted to push ahead with wind and geothermal power generation as well as solar, and to set up a renewable energy subsidiary within a few months.

The Hokkaido plant will be used to gather data on the performance of various companies' solar panels, Mr. Son said, adding that if the renewable energy law is passed, construction on more plants could start before the end of the year.

Domestic panel producers include Sharp, Kyocera and Panasonic , while Suntech Power is the biggest global manufacturer.

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Mr. Son has insisted the new venture will not lessen Softbank's focus on telecommunications.

With a capacity for reinvention matched by few firms, Softbank began in 1981 as a software distributor, bought publishing firm Ziff-Davis, then became an Internet investor company with big stakes in big Internet companies before buying a telecom operator to become Japan's No.3 mobile phone operator after NTT DoCoMo and KDDI Corp.

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