Quake-prone Japan looks at geothermal energy

Aug 26, 2011 by Shingo Ito
Kazuhiro Takase shows AFP around Japan's first geothermal plant at Hachimantai city in Iwate prefecture. The forces that make Japan one of the world's most quake-prone and volcanic countries, and sparked a nuclear disaster, could become part of its long-term energy solution, experts say.

The forces that make Japan one of the world's most quake-prone and volcanic countries, and sparked a nuclear disaster, could become part of its long-term energy solution, experts say.

Steam and hot water billow and gush from deep below the ground at Japan's tens of thousands of famed hot springs and could be harnessed to drive turbines that generate electricity in a clean, safe and stable way, they say.

Although Japanese high-tech companies are leaders in geothermal technology and export it, its use is miniscule in the island nation, which has for decades relied heavily on imported fossil fuels and atomic power.

Japan's parliament passed a law Friday to promote renewable such as wind, solar and geothermal by forcing power utilities to buy it at fixed prices and letting them pass extra costs onto consumers.

"Japan should no doubt make use of its volcano, magma and other geothermal energy," said Yoshiyasu Takefuji, professor of Tokyo's Keio University and a prominent researcher of thermal-electric power generation.

"The March 11 disaster caused a lot of sadness, but it has also changed people's thinking about energy."

Japan is located on the "Pacific Ring of Fire" at the juncture of four that slowly grind along, driven by the flow of super-hot magma below, creating stresses that are released in earthquakes.

The most powerful of these in Japan's recorded history, a magnitude-9.0 quake, struck on March 11, triggering the huge tsunami that killed more than 20,00 people and set off the Fukushima .

The crisis has sparked a backlash against , which previously made up 30 percent of Japan's energy needs, and increased interest in , which account for only eight percent, most of it hydro.

Artist Yoko Ono, John Lennon's widow, has called on her home country to tap its natural energy, following the example of Iceland which uses steam and for over 80 percent of its energy needs.

In northern Japan, 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the tsunami-ravaged coast, lies Japan's first geothermal power plant, built in 1966 at the hot spring resort of Matsukawa in Hachimantai.

The 23,500-kilowatt plant, set amid mountains where the smell of sulphur hangs thick in the air, never stopped running after the quake, while in contrast, two-thirds of Japan's reactors remain offline for safety checks.

The head of the plant, Kazuhiro Takasu, said Japan must accept that switching to renewables will carry initial extra costs, but that a new 10-billion-yen ($130 million) geothermal plant would break even in "a few decades".

The Matsukawa plant in Hachimantai city, built in 1966, is Japan's first geothermal plant. The forces that make Japan one of the world's most quake-prone and volcanic countries, and sparked a nuclear disaster, could become part of its long-term energy solution, experts say.

"People are now talking about renewable energy, but such excitement can easily ebb off after a while," Takasu warned.

For now, geothermal makes up less than one percent of the energy mix in Japan, a resource-poor economic powerhouse that imports its oil, coal and gas and has invested heavily in nuclear energy since the 1970s oil crisis.

The biggest hurdle to geothermal, most experts agree, is the high initial cost of the exploration and drilling of deep earth layers that contain hot water, and of then constructing the plants.

Another problem is that Japan's potentially best sites are already being tapped for tourism with popular "onsen" hot spring resorts or are located within national parks where construction is prohibited.

"We can't even dig 10 centimetres (four inches) inside national parks," said Shigeto Yamada, of Fuji Electric's geothermal team, adding that rules protecting nature sanctuaries would need to be relaxed for geothermal to grow.

Hideaki Matsui, senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute, said "geothermal energy is a decades-long project. We also have to think about what to do for now as energy supplies will decline in the short term".

Nonetheless, argue its proponents, has vast potential.

Japan is estimated to have some of the world's largest reserves of usable underground heat -- behind the United States, the Philippines and Indonesia -- but is ranked only sixth in terms of geothermal generation capacity.

Washington-based environmental think-tank the Earth Policy Institute in April estimated that Japan could produce 80,000 megawatts and meet more than half its electricity needs with conventional geothermal technology.

Ironically, Japanese giants such as Toshiba and Mitsubishi are already global leaders in geothermal technology, with a 70 percent market share. Last year Fuji Electric built the world's largest geothermal plant in New Zealand.

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Bob_Kob
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
Didnt i see a study showing a correlation between geothermal power stations and rise in tremors? Who would've though pouring all that water on boiling hot bedrock would not do anything?
Scottingham
4 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
So let me get this straight...they are saying "Nuclear is bad, lets destroy our national parks for a peanuts amount of power!"
Physmet
4.3 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
I think someone spent too much time at the "onsen" and the heat messed with their brain. I thought they were going to talk about running pipes of water below the homes to produce heating as well as figure out how to turn it into other power. They want to dig into national parks and suck out the hot water from deep in the earth? Hmm, what would the opposite of a "green" project be? I thought we were ready to move beyond this sort of thinking.
antonima
3 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2011
Didnt i see a study showing a correlation between geothermal power stations and rise in tremors? Who would've though pouring all that water on boiling hot bedrock would not do anything?


E-heheeheh. Thats a bit of a problem isn't it?

Perhaps the tremors release the tension building up in the plates gradually instead of all at once?
Turritopsis
2 / 5 (4) Aug 26, 2011
Fracking stupid
Turritopsis
1 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
Drilling into the earths crust leaves weak points.
Eric_B
not rated yet Aug 26, 2011
"Didnt i see a study showing a correlation between geothermal power stations and rise in tremors? Who would've though pouring all that water on boiling hot bedrock would not do anything?"

Please. Earthquakes happen on their own. Build better buildings...

Clean air and water is an acceptable payoff for a risk that is probably insignificant.
Msean1941
not rated yet Aug 26, 2011
"the smell of sulphur hangs thick in the air"

You're not going to get the public to go along until this part of the equation is dealt with. "the smell of sulphur", for those who haven't experienced it, is the smell of rotten eggs.
DaveMart
3 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2011
Geothermal is the renewable energy source which ain't.
The degradation of the heat in the area of ground accessed lasts for hundreds of years, so it is the equivalent of slash and burn.
That is besides it's proven effect in triggering tremors, as happened in Switzerland.
Not ideal in a densely populated country.
Why not stick to something that is proven safe, like nuclear?
The anti-nuclear crowd's TV sets must not work.
It was oil and gas installations which burst into flames after the earthquake, killing an unknown number of people and releasing vast clouds of toxic and carcinogenic smoke.
There was not a single death due to radiation from Fukushima, whatever ideologues from Greenpeace may claim.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2011
Any complex advanced civilization is going to need some form of nuclear energy....period.

Good luck with your solar panels and negative heat sinks......
Telekinetic
2 / 5 (4) Aug 27, 2011
"There was not a single death due to radiation from Fukushima, whatever ideologues from Greenpeace may claim."
Not yet. The death toll from Chernobyl is ongoing. I know a number of the relatives of those who died from radiation poisoning. It's not something officially divulged, as the Japanese government will also keep information about illness and death close to the vest.
Jmaximus
not rated yet Aug 28, 2011
The center of the planet is one massive nuclear power plant that has enough heat energy to dwarf an army of nuclear power plants. Go 6 to 20 km down anywhere on the planet and there is an ocean of molten magma. The power is there 24/7 and there is no way of ever running out in our lifetimes. The underground water does need to be pumped back or the well will run dry, but in a binary system that is part of the design. So there is no odors or waste problems. During the initial phase of drilling and fracking there is a small chance of earthquakes, but no more so than drilling for oil or gas.
Jmaximus
not rated yet Aug 28, 2011
Geothermal is the renewable energy source which ain't.
The degradation of the heat in the area of ground accessed lasts for hundreds of years, so it is the equivalent of slash and burn.
Try billions of years. Last time I checked the mantel and core are still molten magma, same as 4 billion years ago. Fail.