Japan Embraces Geothermal Power by YURIKO NAGANO (November 3, 2012)
YUZAWA CITY, Japan — Tarobee Ito, 69, is the guardian of a family legacy that has survived for more than 12 generations: He manages Tarobee Ryokan, a traditional Japanese onsen ryokan, or hot spring inn, one of about a dozen inns at the Oyasu thermal gorge near Yuzawa City in Akita Prefecture, northern Japan.
But the white steam from the thermal springs has attracted developers with plans for a geothermal power plant in the mountainous area behind his inn that is a national monument.“The developers have promised to stop the process if they see a change in hot spring flow at any point,” Mr. Ito said.
In the wake of last year’s nuclear disaster, Japan is seeking alternative energy sources like geothermal power from hot springs. The Daifunto thermal area near Yuzawa City in the north.Pressures to develop the region’s thermal energy potential are strong. Japan has been struggling to find alternative energy resources since March of last year, when a tsunami created by an earthquake destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The country’s 54 nuclear reactors were shut down, and only two have resumed operations.
Nuclear plants supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, and the shutdown led to a national energy shortage.
According to the International Geothermal Association, Japan comes third, after Indonesia and the United States, in geothermal energy reserves, but is just eighth in output. The Japanese government said it would aim to triple renewable energy sources, including geothermal energy, by 2030.This year, the government has set aside 9 billion yen, or $115 million, to pay for geothermal energy development surveys, and it has submitted a request for 7.5 billion yen to continue the survey next year. It has also earmarked 6 billion yen this year for a program to aid geothermal power developers and is requesting 9 billion yen to extend this program.
Japan’s first geothermal power plant started operating in Iwate Prefecture, next to Akita Prefecture, in 1966. There are now 17 geothermal plants nationwide. In 1974, environmental concerns led to a ban on further development.
The plants produce 535 megawatts of geothermal energy, about 0.2 percent of the country’s total energy output. Yet, the potential is enormous: more than 20 gigawatts of geothermal energy could be developed in Japan, according to a government report.
“Unlike solar or wind energy that can vary in output due to weather conditions, geothermal energy is pretty consistent and stable in output,” said Keiichi Sakaguchi, head of the geothermal research group at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.
But close to 80 percent of Japan’s geothermal reserves are in areas designated as national parks and monuments.
The government in March lifted its ban to allow geothermal projects in five new potential sites in national parks and monuments.
“Many city residents, including myself, support geothermal power development because it sets us apart from surrounding municipalities,” said Shoji Sato, 77, chairman of Yuzawa City Geothermal Development Facilitation Council, a local activist group.
But he acknowledged the inn operators at Oyasu were worried, “because they’re a bit nervous of the idea of a power plant drawing tons of thermal water close to where they source their water.”
The Japanese oil company Idemitsu Kosan is a developer for the Akita geothermal project. Representatives have met with community leaders and explained their plans to residents.Idemitsu is preparing to drill an exploration well to a depth of more than 1,500 meters to test the volume and temperature of thermal water and steam reservoirs.
Another large geothermal project is planned in Fukushima Prefecture. There, local onsen groups are still assessing the situation, and a survey has not yet started.
Mr. Sakaguchi said geothermal power developments outside Japan have caused two hot springs to dry up, but “the technology to pick up underground movements and simulation technology has really improved in the last two decades, so the risk is much lower.”
It typically can take 20 years to develop a geothermal plant, if only because it takes time to earn the trust and cooperation of local people, Mr. Sakaguchi said.
Mr. Ito, of Tarobee Ryokan, is worried. “It does sound like there is some risk involved.”