Unlocking Japan’s geothermal heat power potential
How Japan can meet its future energy needs is not necessarily something you think about while enjoying a nice long soak in a hot-spring bath.
But the hot water you’re soaking in is part of the solution, say advocates of geothermal heat power.
Renewable energy sources such as geothermal heat power have been getting more attention since the 2011 Fukushima disaster exposed the risk — or folly — of nuclear power.
One expert says geothermal power could supply 10 percent of the country’s energy needs by 2050.
That looks like a pipe dream compared to the current situation. Geothermal plants currently produce just 0.2 percent of Japan’s electricity.
Japan has an installed geothermal capacity of only some 500 megawatts, placing it in 10th spot worldwide.
Even a much smaller country such as Iceland — which, like Japan, has lots of seismic activity — has a geothermal capacity of 665 megawatts.
So why doesn’t Japan make better use of this theoretically abundant energy resource?
Well, it’s complicated.
Long before the Fukushima catastrophe, some people realized that Japan’s geothermal resources could play a bigger role in helping the country meet its energy needs.
In the 1985 novel, “Kirikirijin” (“The People of Kirikiri”), Hisashi Inoue imagines an independent Tohoku that relies on geothermal energy.
As one of the characters in the book — a local policeman — explains to a visitor to the new republic: “Electricity is free here thanks to this national geothermal power plant. Hot water heated by underground hot springs is also supplied to each household through pipes. So hot water is also free.”
The visitor asks why the rest of Japan doesn’t take advantage of the abundant energy lying underground.
“It’s simply because leaders of our country have more brains than the leaders of Japan,” is the policeman’s caustic reply.
The policeman might have also mentioned environmental concerns — including the possibility of a negative impact on hot-spring resorts — and the high cost of exploratory drilling and building geothermal plants.
Over the years, Japan has made tentative moves to exploit its geothermal resources.
About geothermal heat power as a source of energy and the future
Geothermal heat power plants don’t pose threats to the environment such as meltdowns or radioactive waste disposal. They can also be operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The government of Japan has set a target of renewable energy sources supplying between 22 and 24 percent of electricity by 2030, with geothermal providing 1.6 gigawatts, or 1 percent of Japan’s power.
“We support a more aggressive target of around 40 percent for renewables,” says Tatsuya Wakeyama, a senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Renewable Energy Institute. “We think the target for geothermal is too low.”
Wakeyama says most researchers believe 2.6 gigawatts is a realistic goal for 2030.
Japan has the scientific and technological skills needed to make full use of its untapped geothermal potential. According to the article in Japan Times, what’s missing is the political will and leadership to make
Hisashi Inoue ‘s dream of geothermal heat power.