"Tapping the Ring of Fire: Can Japan Replace Lost Nuclear Power with Geothermal?"
Japan hasn’t built a major industrial geothermal facility since the 1990’s. But as the country looks beyond nuclear power after the Fukashima disaster, utilizing abundant geothermal resources is the perfect way to make up for a lagging supply of baseload electricity.
Located on the so-called Ring of Fire – the most seismically active area in the world – Japan has an abundance of hot water that can be used for electricity production. A new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests the country has about 23.5 GW of potential. However, accessing those resources may require a change to regulations that make it difficult to develop new geothermal power plants:
Projects are hindered by regulations including a ban on drilling wells in natural parks, which contain about 82 percent of Japan’s estimated 23.5 gigawatts of geothermal resources, according to the report by Tokyo-based analyst Yugo Nakamura. A gigawatt is about equal to the output of a new atomic reactor.
Opposition to development also comes from Japan’s “onsen,” or hot-spring owners, concerned that the use of underground hot water to generate electricity may harm their businesses.
This may cause conflicts between conservation groups, tourism-based businesses and power plant developers. But after reviewing the economic and public health toll of the Fukashima accident, the benefits of safe, renewable geothermal power may outweigh concerns about developing power plants on public lands.
Post-Fukushima, the Japanese government has embraced renewable energy and reconsidered plans to build over a dozen new nuclear reactors (see Japan PM on Fukushima: “Taking this as a lesson, we will lead the world in clean energy such as solar and biomass”)
According to Bloomberg, the government has even created specific incentives to revive its geothermal industry:
Japan plans to introduce a feed-in tariff, or subsidized power price, of 15 yen ($0.19) per kilowatt-hour next year to cover the added cost of generating electricity from underground steam, a measure it forecast will add as much as 500 megawatts of capacity within a decade, the report said. Japan currently has 537 megawatts of installed geothermal capacity.
Considering that the Fukashima plant had a capacity of 4,700 MW, a 500-MW increase in geothermal wouldn’t be enough to close the current gap. But if Japan is serious about developing renewable energy and moving away from nuclear, industrial geothermal – which typically generates double the electricity of an equivalent wind or solar plant – will need to be a central part of the effort.
So why would it take so long to get 500 MW in the ground? It typically takes a few years to search for, identify and access suitable hydrothermal resources. Permitting is also a time-consuming process – and it may be more so in Japan given some of the aforementioned resource-use conflicts. Once a project is ready to go, securing drilling rigs for plant construction can be a problem due to competition for equipment with the oil and gas industries. And developing a workforce to build a “new” industry also takes time – although there may be a number of out-of-work nuclear engineers looking for a new place to bring their skills.
Considering that Japan will be trying to grow an industry that has been relatively dormant for more than a decade, putting another 500 MW online over the next ten years would be a solid accomplishment.
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