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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Japan’s hot spring resorts are blocking geothermal power plants

Whight steam Produced in the waters of the snow-capped Okuhida Onsen Village in northern Japan. Thousands of bathers from all over the country travel to soak in these sacred hot springs every year. Meanwhile, the spring’s underground reservoir has found new uses: Last December, the Nakao Geothermal Power Plant began using steam from the reservoir to generate electricity. The power station has a maximum output of 1,998 kilowatts and can supply power to 4,000 households.

Japan has more than 100 active volcanoes and an estimated 23 GW of potential geothermal resources. This would represent a stable, 24/7, zero-carbon power source equivalent to the output of 23 nuclear reactors. But the Nakao plant is rare — Japan has barely exploited its vast geothermal reserves. Only 2% is tapped; geothermal energy provides 0.3% of the country’s total electricity supply. Japan has the third-largest geothermal potential in the world after the United States and Indonesia, but ranks 10th in geothermal power generation, behind countries with fewer resources such as Kenya. For a country that relies heavily on imported energy and is already struggling to meet its commitment to decarbonize its economy by 2050, this represents a huge missed opportunity.

Japan’s large and influential hot spring industry is a major obstacle to geothermal development. While many geologists believe there is little chance of geothermal power plants negatively impacting bathing pools (which are often filled with aquifers much shallower than the geothermal reservoirs energy companies seek), the spa industry isn’t convinced. “The government’s tourism industry depends on hot springs. What if they keep building geothermal power plants and the hot springs disappear?” said Yoshiyasu Sato, vice president of the Japan Hot Spring Association, a large industry organization that opposes geothermal energy. “Uncontrolled development”. Japan’s 3,000 hot spring resorts generally do not agree to the permits needed for development. The fact that they are deeply rooted in Japanese culture and attract some 130 million tourists a year has largely deterred the government from pushing back.

There are other obstacles to geothermal development. About 80% of Japan’s protected areas are located in national parks. Most of Japan is mountainous, which increases construction costs. Its underground geology is also relatively complicated, and the rock formation is hard and difficult to drill through. Countries that produce large amounts of geothermal energy, such as Indonesia, typically have relatively large and well-connected power stations, while Japan’s power plants tend to be small and dispersed. Ehara Sachio of the Institute for Geothermal Information, a think tank in Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo, says geothermal in Japan is “promising” but requires “hard work.”

However, with sufficient political will, none of these obstacles are insurmountable, as Japan proved in its response to the oil crisis of the 1970s. Back then it launched an initiative called Project Sunshine to promote alternative energy sources, including solar, hydrogen and geothermal. As part of this work, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), a government agency established in 1980, assessed geothermal potential across the country. It has led to the construction of dozens of geothermal power plants across the country, despite the same backlash from the spa industry. By 1996, the newly added generating capacity was over 500MW.

Enthusiasm for geothermal in Japan is fading as oil prices stabilize and more nuclear plants come online. But the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 turned public opinion against nuclear energy, which led to another explosion. Japan now wants to triple its geothermal power generation by 2030. Businesses and local governments are considering more than 50 possible sites for new geothermal power plants.

To this end, the government is also focusing on the next generation of geothermal technology. Japan and the United States recently signed an agreement to cooperate on geothermal projects, including supercritical geothermal research — which involves drilling deep wells to access superheated fluids. NEDO is working on a supercritical geothermal pilot project with the goal of starting large-scale power generation by 2050. Mr. Ehara believes that this advanced technology can ensure that geothermal energy provides more than 10% of Japan’s energy mix. (The U.S. Department of Energy aims to generate 8.5 percent of U.S. electricity generation from geothermal by 2050.)

In the short term, conventional geothermal power plants are still a better way to reduce Japan’s carbon emissions. It becomes slightly easier to develop them. The timeline for environmental assessment has recently been shortened from more than ten years to eight years. About a decade ago, the rules for developing national park land were relaxed. Perhaps more hopefully, some geothermal energy producers, such as Cenergy, which operates the plant in Nakao, are developing innovative ways of their own to appease naysayers.

The hot water extracted by the factory is not returned directly to the ground as usual. It is piped to local hot springs. Local hot spring owner Uchino Masamitsu said both parties enjoyed a “win-win” situation. The collaboration also appears to have sparked interest in using hot water in other ways. Some local households are using the heat to grow tropical fruits such as bananas and dragon fruit. “Geothermal heat,” Mr. Uchino sighed approvingly, “opens up so many dreams.”

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