Japan Looks to Revive Geothermal Energy

Japanese electric generation giant Marubeni Corp wants to revitalize the geothermal industry by tapping heat that powers volcanoes, according to Bloomberg. Marubeni already operates a Costa Rican power plant that runs off underground heat and is developing another in Indonesia.

Marubeni plans to study geological formations and geothermal potential in the Shiramizusawa area, about 578 miles north of Tokyo, within the next several weeks.  It will take a year before officials decide whether to conduct test drilling. After that a determination would be made on a suitable site for a plant, which could take three or more years.

Idemitsu Kosan Co, a Japanese refiner, also plans a drilling survey at another park in northern Japan this summer.

Drawing pools of underground heat from Daisetsuzan National Park on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and other areas in Japan, which borders the geologically active “Ring of Fire” – volcanoes and rift zones that push pools of heat closer to the Earth’s surface,  could potentially give the country an abundant supply of energy and help it move away from atomic reactors.

According to the Geothermal Energy Association in Washington D.C. Japan has the potential to produce 23,000 megawatts of power from underground heat. Only 0.2 percent of Japan’s electricity comes from the technology now.

Renewed interest in geothermal energy is the result of concern over nuclear power following the meltdown in Fukushima. All but two of the nation’s 50 nuclear reactors remain shut for safety tests following Fukushima.

Newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to set out a strategy to restart some nuclear reactors once safety measures are in place. The previous government aimed to phase out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s.

At issue is the fact that more than 80 percent of Japan’s geothermal reserves are in national parks. In 2012, Japan eased rules in place since the 1970s to allow geothermal in protected national parks in order to boost supplies of renewable energy, and lessen dependence on nuclear power.

Like nuclear power, geothermal energy production doesn’t pollute the atmosphere. That doesn’t mean environmentalists are happy.

“To import a very complex and difficult technology to boil water in the world’s most seismically active country when there is such vast geothermal potential strikes me as madness,” said David Suzuki, a Canadian author, environmentalist and board member of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation.

The projects also threaten to revive conflict with hot-spring resorts, which are concerned commercial geothermal projects will siphon away the same reserves they tap. Geothermal developments were largely off limits in Japan before the earthquake in March 2011 because heat reserves were set aside for resorts.

“We understand geothermal is one of our energy options,” said Hirokazu Nunoyama, secretary-general of the Japan Spa Association. “But there are impacts on the environment. There are cases of hot spring resources running out or thinning, or a drop in water temperatures.”  The association of 1,500 members opposes the “disorderly development” of geothermal.

To read the full Bloomberg article cited in this story, click here

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