Geothermal energy in Japan

The government aims to shorten the start-up period for new geothermal energy plants from 15 years to 10 years–generally seen as necessary to develop the energy due to various restrictions.

In the wake of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the government plans to encourage expansion of renewable energy sources.

Within this year, 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.

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.

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.

Currently, there are 18 geothermal power plants in the nation, mainly in Tohoku and Kyushu.

Their electricity output in fiscal 2009 accounted for only 0.26 percent of the nation’s total.

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.

Many of the possible sites for geothermal power plants are inside national parks and other places where development has been restricted.

Location has been one factor why new geothermal development has not progressed.

Under the current laws on natural parks and hot spring resorts, government permission is required before test drilling.

In some cases, developers must apply to lift preservation measures under the Forest Law to proceed with plants.

The government will review applications of related laws to simplify procedures for geothermal power plant development.

Currently, if a targeted development site is five hectares or larger in state-owned forests, open bidding is held to lease the land from the government.

But the government plans to lend land under simplified discretionary contracts if the purpose is geothermal development.

With the series of measures, the government expects the start-up period for new geothermal plants will be shortened by about five years.

The government aims to have the newly selected sites for geothermal power plants supplying power in about 10 years.

In its request in the fiscal 2012 budget, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry sought 10.25 billion yen for subsidizing test drilling and 8 billion yen for contributions or debt guarantees for full-scale drilling.

A group of lawmakers to promote geothermal power, comprising members of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, held its first meeting in late September.

However, some energy experts said even if the construction of new geothermal power plants goes as scheduled, it will still be difficult to change the nation’s basic power supply structure.