Geothermal energy in Japan: Gov’t, businesses must cooperate

The Environment Ministry has adopted a policy of promoting the use of eco-friendly energy and has relaxed the standards for building geothermal energy stations inside national and quasi-national parks.

In light of this decision, which has been conveyed to the country’s 47 prefectural governments, the government and businesses must cooperate closely in formulating a successful model for geothermal power generation.

Japan, known as a land of volcanoes, has abundant geothermal energy. We hope that the government and businesses will steadily promote the use of this energy, while securing understanding from hot spa operators and conservationists.

In geothermal power generation, deep wells are dug and the steam that emerges from these wells is used to rotate turbines to generate electricity. The output of such power stations is far more stable than that of wind power generators, solar panels and other renewable energy systems, and can be used as main power sources.

Japan’s total geothermal energy reserves are the third largest in the world, having the potential to generate 23.47 million kilowatts of electricity — the output of 20 nuclear reactors — according to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). Japanese manufacturers have a major share in the global geothermal power generator market.

Nevertheless, the output of geothermal power generators in Japan stands at just over 530,000 kilowatts, placing the nation in eighth place on the global scale. This is largely attributable to the fact that about 80 percent of geothermal energy reserves are situated below national parks and other protected areas where development has been restricted from the viewpoint of landscape preservation and biodiversity protection. The time and money required to build such power stations also pose a challenge, and some hot spa inn owners have voiced fears that hot springs could dry up if such power plants were constructed nearby.

The Environment Ministry’s decision to ease the standards for building geothermal power stations is part of the government’s regulatory and system reform aimed at promoting the use of renewable energy.

Specifically, the ministry will allow utilities to dig diagonally into geothermal reserves below national and quasi-national parks from outside such restricted areas. Moreover, it will permit businesses to vertically dig wells in less restricted areas on condition that the parties concerned reach a consensus in advance and that they employ technology minimizing the impact on the natural environment. The ministry’s easing of standards will allow the exploitation of geothermal energy reserves that could generate an additional 3 million kilowatts.

Geothermal energy is subject to the so-called feed-in tariff system, under which utilities are required to buy electricity generated with renewable energy at prices fixed by law, which will be implemented this coming July. Following deregulation, plans have emerged to build geothermal power stations in five locations, including the Bandai-Asahi National Park in Fukushima Prefecture. The Environment Ministry and the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry have begun holding briefing sessions on such projects.

However, environmental protection organizations have criticized the government’s promotion of geothermal power generation, with one group commenting, "The move represents a back-down in its environmental protection policy and cannot be disregarded." This reaction stems mainly from the ministry’s decision to allow utilities to dig wells vertically in less restricted areas to reduce construction costs.

It takes a long time and a huge amount of money to restore environmental areas that have been destroyed. If the government and businesses hastily build geothermal power stations and seriously affect the surrounding environment and hot springs, it could dampen similar projects in other areas.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano says the government intends to prioritize projects at five locations. It is hoped that the government and electric power businesses will cooperate closely in creating a model project that will ensure both environmental protection and regional promotion, while forming a consensus with local communities.

Environment Minister Goshi Hosono says, "The ministry is a partner in the promotion of geothermal power generation." However, geothermal power stations with an output of at least 10,000 kilowatts are subject to the Environmental Impact Assessment Law. The government is urged to require utilities planning to build such power stations, including smaller-scale ones, to review their plans if necessary.