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Geothermal power promises energy boon for Japan, but hurdles remain

Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Hatchobaru Geothermal Power Plant is seen in Kokonoe, Oita Prefecture, in this Feb. 21, 2012 file photo. The Hatchobaru plant is the largest of its kind in Japan, producing 110,000 kilowatts. (Mainichi)

Japan is a country of volcanoes, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is looking to take advantage of all that subterranean heat as a major future power source by backing efforts to find the most promising geothermal electricity generation sites.

    Japan has the third greatest geothermal energy potential in the world, behind only the United States and Indonesia. However, the costly drilling surveys needed to find optimal generating sites take time, and don't always turn up a viable heat source. These risks have stalled geothermal energy development in Japan, while the nascent industry also faces the need to coordinate with the country's many hot spring resort businesses, among other hurdles.

    Geothermal power generation has the potential to provide a steady supply of electricity and requires no fuel. These obvious benefits have prompted the government to target a trebling of Japan's geothermal power output by 2030. However, it generally takes about five years of drill survey work to find just one profitable subterranean heat source. If no viable heat source can be found, investors are left with nothing -- a reality that has made many project developers reluctant to get into the business.

    To alleviate the risks inherent in the search for geothermal heat sources, the industry ministry has decided to task the government-backed Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC) with identifying likely hotspots, drilling down 500 meters and collecting subterranean heat data to narrow down the list of potential generating sites. The national government will cover a certain amount of these initial exploration costs, and pass on the fruits of the project to private enterprises, thereby alleviating much of the risk and financial burden of developing geothermal power. The ministry will request a budget appropriation for the project in the fiscal 2017 budget.

    The government in fact already has a number of geothermal power promotion policies in place, but so far none have produced significant results. When the feed-in tariff system for renewable energy was introduced in 2012, the government also loosened environmental regulations for projects in national and quasi-national parks, where most geothermal enterprises were being developed. Via JOGMEC, the government is also providing loan guarantees and financial support to geothermal project developers for geological and drilling survey costs.

    However, while small-scale enterprises have been multiplying, large-scale projects aimed at pumping out 7,000 kilowatts or more have stagnated. So far, only three such projects -- including one in Yuzawa, Akita Prefecture, which started construction last year -- have come to fruition, producing about 60,000 kilowatts total. The government set a geothermal energy generation target of three times the current 520,000 kilowatt total by 2030 in its energy mix plan released last year, but achieving that goal is a long way off.

    However, geothermal energy development's challenges aren't only technical. Geothermal projects require prefectural approval, but it has proven difficult to gain the understanding of local hot spring resort owners worried that the projects will impact hot spring sources. There is also a wide technical knowledge gap between geothermal power businesses and local government officials, making it hard for those officials to moderate between concerned local residents and the businesses.

    To try to bridge this gap, the government has set up a 23-member geothermal power generation advisory expert committee within JOGMEC, and will provide information and data analysis to local governments that request it. It will also launch a geothermal energy data exchange network in August to allow local governments to exchange information on the topic.

    Experts have called the moves an important first step. However, they have also pointed out that it is hard to expect significant development of geothermal energy unless there is a major change in the attitude of hot spring resort operators, who continue to harbor deep suspicions about the technology. Measures are needed to advance compromise and cooperation among all the interested parties.

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