According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Japan is home to the world's third-largest store of geothermal energy resources--a power output equivalent to 23.5 million kilowatts — according to estimates by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, an independent administrative institution — following the United States and Indonesia. However, the nation's geothermal resources have remained largely undeveloped as most lie inside national parks, where energy development is strictly regulated. This may change soon, as the government has announced the deregulation of geothermal power development projects. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 10, 2012]

“Geothermal power could be a consistent, fundamental energy source, which is an advantage over wind and solar," said Norio Tenma, vice head of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology's Methane Hydrate Research Center. Nevertheless, all the available geothermal resources would only account for 10 percent of the nation's overall power needs. Geothermal power therefore could only be used at small scales to supply electricity to limited areas.

“Currently, there are 18 geothermal power plants in the nation, mainly in Tohoku and Kyushu. They have total output capacity of 540,000 kilowatts. Electricity output from geothermal power generation is about 2.9 billion kilowatt-hours a year. The figure is lower than wind power generation's about 3.8 billion kilowatt-hours, but higher than solar power's about 2.8 billion kilowatt-hours. The electricity generated by geothermal energy accounted for merely 0.26 percent of the national total as of fiscal 2010. However with many volcanoes in the country, the government assumes there is abundant geothermal energy to supply electricity in a more stable manner than solar and wind power generation, where output is affected by weather. Because of this reliability, the government decided to develop more geothermal energy plants. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 13, October 14 2012]

“In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the Government Revitalization Unit has introduced a policy to simplify procedures for approval of geothermal power plant development under the Natural Park Law and Hot Springs Law, in an effort to promote the use of geothermal power in the nation. The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, together with geothermal power plant operators, have thus far been supporting geothermal power development with vertical drilling, as they say diagonal drilling has higher development costs. Because of this, it has been suggested that further deregulation may occur in the future.

Geothermal Plants in Japan

There are only 18 geothermal power plants in Japan, and together they account for only 0.3 percent of Japan’s electricity production. Geothermal facilities in Japan are capable of generating up to 530,000 kilowatts of power. They are found mainly in the Kyushu and Tohuku regions. Most of the plants were built before the mid 1980s.

The geothermal power plants on the island of Kyushu harness steam to turn electricity-producing turbines. The first one opened in 1924 in Bepphu, where steam is also used to heat houses and cook food in restaurants. Natural heat is also used in sulfur extraction plants and eel and alligator farms.

Japan may have a geothermal generation potential of much as 20 million kilowatts, enough to make up 10 percent of Japan’s power generation capacity.

Most geothermal plants tap into hot underground water sources. More than half the thermal sources are located around national parks and/ or near the country’s 27,000 thermal springs that onsens (hot spring resorts) rely on for their hot water supplies. Restrictions on drilling and development costs raise the costs to around ¥16 for a kilowatt per hour — three times the cost of thermal or nuclear power.

With conventional geothermal power generation, vapor reaching 200 degrees C is pumped from deep underground to a power-generating turbine. Japan is now studying binary systems in which liquids with lower boiling points than water’such as ammonia or pentane, which has a boiling point of only 36 degrees C are sent to a heat exchanger within which they are transformed to vapor using hot water. The vapor is then directed to a turbine for power generation. In this way power can be generated with sources whose temperatures are as low as 100 degrees C. A binary geothermal plant in Kokonoemahci, Oita Prefecture has an output of 2,000 kilowatts,

Describing the Yanaizu-Nishiyama geothermal plant in Fukushima Prefecture, Andrew Pollack wrote in the New York Times: “Some 300 tons of steam and hot water emerge every hour here from 21 wells drilled as deep as one-and-a-half miles. The steam is sent through a maze of pipes to a nearby power plant run by the regional utility, to turn an electrical turbine. There is virtually no sound to indicate all the steam whooshing around. And the power plant is simple enough that it can be controlled remotely from hundreds of miles away.” [Source: Andrew Pollack, New York Times, May 9, 2011]

Geothermal energy is not without risks. In October 2010, one man was killed and one was injured when hot water gushed out of a hole at a geothermal plant near Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. The 63-year-old dead man was found buried under sand and dirt that gushed out with the water. Police said he was using a power shovel to plug a hole made by a similar gusher a week or so earlier. The 48-year-old injured man suffered extensive burns.

Japan Doesn’t Get as Much Electricity from Geothermal Energy as It Could

Andrew Pollack wrote in the New York Times: “As visitors to any of Japan’s thousands of hot springs know, this country is sitting on a lot of very hot water. So far, though, little of it has been harnessed to produce energy...But some say that with Japan’s reliance on nuclear power plants coming into question, the country should harness more of its geothermal natural resource to provide clean, renewable energy.” [Source: Andrew Pollack, New York Times, May 9, 2011]

“Japan has 10 percent of the world’s volcanic activity, so I think there is the possibility for more development,” said Kengo Aoyama, engineering section chief of the Yanaizu-Nishiyama geothermal plant, located here in an area filled with hot spring resorts. Yanaizu-Nishiyama is located in Fukushima Prefecture not too far from nuclear power plant with rectors that melted down after the earthquake and tsunami in 201.

The Washington-based Earth Policy Institute argues that geothermal energy could provide as much as 80,000 megawatts of capacity in Japan — compared with only 535 megawatts now — and become a mainstay of its power production. Advocates in Japan are more cautious. Sachio Ehara, an expert at Kyushu University, said the potential for geothermal energy was around 23,000 megawatts, although new technology could increase it. Geothermal could supply 10 to 20 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2050, he said.

Obstacles to Developing Geothermal Energy

The obstacles to developing geothermal energy include operators of hot springs resorts, who worry that geothermal projects will sap their hot water supplies, and the fact that many of the best hot water reservoirs are in national parks and therefore off limits to development. Unlike solar or wind energy, geothermal power cannot be developed quickly because it takes years to explore and develop a field — a process analogous to prospecting for oil. [Source: Andrew Pollack, New York Times, May 9, 2011]

And largely because of drilling expenses, a geothermal power station costs about three times as much to build as a coal-fired plant of similar capacity, Masaho Adachi, president of the Okuaizu Geothermal Company, told the New York Times. But he said that high upfront cost is offset over time, because geothermal plants do not burn fuel. Nonetheless, Okuaizu, a subsidiary of Mitsui Mining and Smelting, is losing money on the Yanaizu-Nishiyama plant. But Mr. Adachi said the geothermal business would become more viable if the Parliament, as expected, enacted a law to require electric companies to buy geothermal energy at a premium price.

Geothermal power, while considered clean energy, is not always perfectly renewable because a hot water field can be tapped more quickly than it can be renewed. The Yanaizu-Nishiyama plant, which opened in 1995, is rated at 65 megawatts of capacity, but production has fallen to only half that level. And there is a fear that the drilling, or the practice of injecting cool water back into the ground, could induce earthquakes. But at least Mr. Aoyama does not have to worry about a release of deadly radiation like that from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 75 miles east of here. His main environmental concern is the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide, which can be harmful in high concentrations but not in the amounts likely to escape from the geothermal plant. “It smells a little,” Mr. Aoyama told the New York Times, “but not so much that the neighbors complain.”

New Japanese Geothermal Energy Technology

In September 2011, Kyodo News reported: “Japanese Kyushu Electric Power Co. in cooperation with Kawasaki Heavy Industries will test a binary geothermal power generation system using steam from liquid with a low boiling point to turn a turbine at the Yamagawa geothermal power plant early in 2012. The test will be conducted at the utility’s Yamagawa Geothermal Power Generation Plant in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, for two years in cooperation with Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., it said.

The utility is aiming to put the system into commercial operation on many isolated islands in the Kyushu area to generate power in a more environmentally friendly manner by replacing diesel generators that use heavy oil, it said. The system involves heating and evaporating liquids with low boiling points that can be gasified at temperatures of around 30 C, using the resulting steam to turn a turbine to generate power. In the upcoming test, Kyushu Electric plans to use a hydrochlorofluorocarbon with a boiling point of 34 C.

The utility wants to check the cost-benefit performance of the system with an output capacity of 250 kilowatts, while examining whether it can be used on remote islands where underground hot water tends to have higher saline concentrations, it added.”

Geothermal Plants and Binary Geothermal Plants in Japan

A geothermal power plant generates electricity by drilling a well to extract geothermal steam from underground, and then using it to turn a turbine. Geothermal power generation uses steam created by extremely hot underground water. In geothermal power generation, a well is drilled 1,000 to 3,000 meters into the ground to allow natural steam or hot water to escape. This steam then rotates a turbine that generates electricity. The benefit of this type of plant is continuous power generation, as they can operate around the clock. But there are a limited number of places in the nation with a sufficient quantity of hot water with a high enough temperature to power a geothermal plant.

“Two major problems have been preventing wider use of geothermal power: high drilling costs to bring steam from the source of hot springs to rotate the turbines of power generators, and the fact that 80 percent of prospective locations are in national parks, where development is restricted.

“Binary geothermal power generation utilizes ammonia vapors, which occur at a low boiling point in nearly 100 C hot spring water, to produce steam to turn a turbine. This system has the advantage of being able to utilize "waste heat" after adjusting the temperature of hot spring water when it is too hot. An experiment demonstrating this system was just introduced by the ministry at the Matsunoyama Onsen hot spring resort in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture, in December. At Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Hatchobaru geothermal power plant in Kokonoe, Oita Prefecture, a similar geothermal power generator was introduced in 2004 to use lower temperature steam that is not viable for regular geothermal power generation. The power output capacity of the device is 2,000 kilowatts. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 13, 2012]

Hot Dry Rock Geothermal Power and Other New Geothermal Technologies

In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The geothermal power generation industry has been waiting anxiously for a technology called "hot dry rock geothermal power" to become available for practical use. Unlike conventional geothermal power generation methods that use steam produced naturally, this technique makes use of hot dry rocks that lie two to three kilometers underground. Power is generated by pouring water into cracks, which generates steam as hot as 200 C to 300 C. Experimental studies were conducted in Yamagata and Akita prefectures. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 10, 2012]

“Japan’s Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI) proposed forming "geothermopias" 20 years ago. These geothermal utopias consisted of three small communities--one each in northern and southern Japan, and another on a remote island--where hot dry rock geothermal energy would power everything from home appliances and agriculture to medical treatments and recreation facilities. However, research into hot dry rock geothermal power slowed, and Japanese research institutions began collaborating with colleagues overseas so they could continue their efforts to develop the technology needed to make power generation practical.

“During this period of stagnation, Japan fell behind in the field. Australia and European countries forged ahead with research and development into hot dry rock geothermal power to curb carbon dioxide emissions, even though Japan was seen as a more feasible site. Researchers in the United States, meanwhile, have been working on a unique method called "enhanced geothermal system," in which already developed geothermal resources are revitalized by injecting water to produce more steam.

“Estimates by CRIEPI and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization show that costs for hot dry rock geothermal power could be kept low--just 12.7 yen per kilowatt for processing geothermal resources equivalent to 30 million to 38 million kilowatts at a 240,000-kilowatt power station. "I hope the new technology will start attracting attention again [with the renewed focus on renewable energy]," said Hisatoshi Ito, a senior researcher at CRIEPI.

“Prof. Tsutomu Yamaguchi at Toho University's Faculty of Science also said hot dry rock geothermal power has significant potential. "Conventional geothermal generation methods can only be applied to limited areas, such as Tohoku and Kyushu," he said. "But the new technology could be used in many areas throughout the country.”

Geothermal Plants in National Parks

In July 2012, Tsuchiyu Onsen hot spring resort in Fukushima city was picked to house Japan’s first geothermal power plant inside a national park. The plant will start operations autumn 2013 at the earliest. It plans to utilize the method of binary cycle geothermal power generation. Using heat from hot spring water and other sources, the method causes liquid with a low boiling point, such as ammonia, to come to a boil and propel a turbine. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 16, 2012]

“The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Other larger-scale power generation projects are being developed inside national parks, for which vertical wells are being dug. But the binary method does not require new wells because hot water from existing springs is used, thus lowering construction costs. In the Tsuchiyu project, power generation will initially start with an output capacity of 500 kilowatts in two locations near the springs. This figure will likely be raised later to 1,000 kilowatts.

“All electric power generated by the project will be sold to Tohoku Electric Power Co. at 42 yen per kilowatt. The price has been set by a system that started this month to oblige power companies to buy renewable energy at fixed prices. Construction costs of the first plant are estimated at about 300 million yen, and the resort expects to recover the cost in about seven years.

“The government has been trying to increase geothermal power generation since the outbreak of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, but drilling in national and quasi-national parks is strictly regulated for developing geothermal plants, despite the great potential.

“In March 2012, The Environment Ministry approve the practice of drilling diagonal wells in national parks as part of efforts to promote for geothermal power plants. According to the ministry, it would relax the regulations to approve diagonal drilling, a form of drilling where wells can originate outside the regulated area in a national park and tap into supplies in the regulated area. Also, the ministry will approve binary power generation using hot spring water, ministry officials said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 13, 2012]

“Diagonal drilling is currently used at Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s Sumikawa geothermal power plant in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture, located in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park stretching over Aomori, Akita and Iwate prefectures. Development permission was issued by the Environment Ministry in April last year. The power plant is expected to supply electricity for the equivalent of about 12,000 households.

“In October 2011 the government announced measures to relax development restrictions under the Natural Parks Law to expand the use of geothermal energy for power generation. The government aims to shorten the start-up period for new geothermal power generation plants from 15 years to 10 years--generally seen as necessary to develop the energy due to various restrictions. In 2012 the government will select at least 10 sites, mainly in the Tohoku region, where geothermal power plants will be built, and plans to give financial aid to cover part of the development costs. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 14, 2011]

Geothermal Power Spreading in Oita Prefecture

“In November 2011, Yusuke Inoue, wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Geothermal power generation appears to be spreading in Oita Prefecture, an area ideal for producing this renewable energy due to its many hot springs. Supporting the move is the special measures law established to promote renewable energy sources, which obliges major electric power companies to purchase power generated from natural energy sources, and the development of small power generators that can be used at hotels and inns in hot spring resorts such as Beppu and Yufuincho. [Source: Yusuke Inoue, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 11, 2011]

“Some experts say geothermal power generation in the prefecture could be a model for "local production for local consumption" of energy. Local production for local consumption is a term commonly used regarding agricultural and fishery products. "It would be a waste not to use the prefecture's abundant geothermal energy," said an Oita prefectural government official involved with the promotion of geothermal energy.

“According to the prefectural government, geothermal power generation has been introduced at three power stations of Kyushu Electric Power Co. and two hotels using private power generators in Kokonoemachi, located among the Kujusan volcanoes. Their combined power output capacity is about 155,000 kilowatts, sufficient for about 51,600 households. This figure also accounted for about 10 percent of the total power output capacity in the prefecture, far above the national average of 0.26 percent, as of fiscal 2009. The prefecture is already using 30 percent of the geothermal energy estimated to be available by the Environment Ministry estimates, and the prefectural government plans to increase the rate further.

“Asmall power generator developed by Kobe Steel Ltd. that uses hot springs already tapped for hotels and inns is being used. Priced at 25 million yen, the device is about the size of a small freight container and has an output capacity of 70 kilowatts. Some hotels in Yufuincho plan to introduce it. Users can recoup their initial investment cost in about four years if electricity from the device is sold to a power company for about 20 yen per kilowatt-hour under the special measures law, according to the local firm, which plans to sell four to five devices a year. To increase the nation's energy self-sufficiency through local production for local consumption, both public and private sectors should cooperate for wider introduction of geothermal energy.

Japanese Geothermal Power Abroad

In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Plumes of steam 10 meters high rise amid tea plantations on the slope of a 2,000-meter mountain about two hours' drive from Bandung, the capital of West Java Province, Indonesia. The sulfurous-smelling steam columns gush out of a dozen wells dug by two Japanese companies, Marubeni Corp. and Toshiba Corp., as part of the construction of the Patuha Unit 1 geothermal power plant that is scheduled to open in 2014. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 12 2012]

“Three Japanese companies--Toshiba, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Fuji Electric Co.--hold about 70 percent of the global market for geothermal power development. Their dominance springs at least partially from Japan's geography, and its abundance of volcanoes and hot springs. Steam from beneath the earth often contains sulfur and other impurities, so turbines for geothermal power generation must be built with specially designed material to protect against corrosion. Japanese firms have a decided edge over their overseas competitors in this area.

“Indonesia has even more geothermal energy resources than Japan. Also possessing a rapidly growing economy, demand for power in Indonesia has been rising about 8.5 percent per year. Indonesia's government plans to expand the country's geothermal power generation capacity from about 800 megawatts in 2010 to 5,000 megawatts by 2025. According to Atsushi Shibata, chief of the No. 1 overseas power generation project team at Marubeni, "Japan's global technological advantage in geothermal power generation will remain strong for a long time." The unfortunate tendency for earthquakes in Japan has helped domestic firms compete internationally in the field of geothermal power.

Image Sources: TEPCO, Osaka Gas, Japan Nuclear Power Program, Ray Kinnane, Sanyo, Sharp

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2012

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