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TOKYO, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Sales of solar cells in Japan rose 30.7 percent in 2011 from the previous year to 1,296 megawatts, the first time sales have topped 1,000 MW, helped by a government scheme to promote renewable energy.
Sales in the October-December quarter rose 30.4 percent from a year earlier to 406.3 MW, Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association data showed on Wednesday, helped by subsidies to encourage home owners to install solar panels.
In a scheme expected to be launched in July, utilities must buy any electricity generated by solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and small hydro power plants at preset rates for up to 20 years.
Sales of solar cell are expected to rise further once details including pricing for each energy type are set by a panel appointed by parliament.
Solar cell exports for the whole of 2011 rose to 1,462.8 MW, up 1.2 percent from a year earlier, though they fell 13.5 percent to 321.3 MW in October-December.
Japan is overhauling its energy policies after the Fukushima radiation crisis, which shattered public confidence in nuclear safety and has kept reactors that were halted for routine checks from being restarted.
Only three of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are now operating. Without approval for restarts, all of them could be shut by the end of April, boosting the use of fossil fuels and adding over $30 billion a year to the nation's energy costs, a government estimate said.
Resource-poor Japan had aimed to increase the share of nuclear power to more than half of its electricity supply by 2030 before the earthquake and tsunami last March wrecked the Fukushima plant and triggered reactor meltdowns, but now looks to instead raise the role of renewable sources such as wind and solar power.
The association includes major Japanese solar panel makers such as Sharp Corp, Kyocera Corp, Panasonic Corp and Mitsubishi Electric Corp, as well as foreign makers such as Suntech Power Holdings. (Reporting by Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Michael Watson)