by Shuhei Ochiai
Development of geothermal power in Japan has not made headway, even though Japan is one of the countries with the greatest potential for geothermal power generation. Some new geothermal power plants have begun operations, but geothermal energy capacity has only grown by 1% in the past 10 years, faced with obstacles like environmental regulations. Meeting the Japanese government’s 2030 goal for geothermal power now seems to be impossible. This situation shows that Japan cannot make good use of its natural resources, even while considering the risk of reliance on Middle Eastern energy resources.
In 2019, the Wasabizawa Geothermal Power Plant in Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture, began operations. It was the first time that a power plant of this size began operations in 23 years. With maximum output in excess of 10,000 kilowatts, the plant has the capacity to provide electricity for about 90,000 homes. It is the fourth largest geothermal power plant in Japan.
A top official of Yuzawa Geothermal Power Generation Corporation, a management company jointly financed by Electric Power Development (J-Power), Mitsubishi Materials and others, said that they were able to start operations due to understanding of local residents. The official said they would like to contribute to local communities by providing a stable supply of electricity.
Geothermal power plants use steam from below ground to rotate turbines for power generation. Land suitable for geothermal power plants is often close to volcanoes. Japan’s potential energy resource from geothermal energy is approximately 23.47 million kilowatts, which ranks third worldwide after the U.S. (30 million kilowatts) and Indonesia (27.79 kilowatts). Nevertheless, the actual amount of energy used is just 2% of its resources.
The actual amount of geothermal energy available is not known until it is extracted. The success rate is said to be just 30%. The environmental impact assessment may take three to four years, causing difficulties in planning projects. Existing power plants took an average of 14 years from start of the survey to start of operations. The Wasabizawa plant took 26 years.
The Environment Ministry eased regulations in 2015 to boost development in class 1 special zones of national and quasi-national parks, which are often areas with potential as a geothermal energy sources. The new regulations allow drilling starting from outside the zone and digging diagonally underneath the zone. An insider said that the effect of deregulation has been minimal because locals often raise objections if there are hot springs near the area.
Another factor contributing to lagging development is the lack of drilling technicians. Many geothermal power plants were built in northeastern Japan and Kyushu after the 1970’s oil crisis. After this period, building of geothermal power plants was stagnant due to the national budget focusing on nuclear power. The lapse after the 1990’s created difficulties in the transmission of technology to younger generations.
Geothermal power can be generated without regard to weather conditions. Geothermal power can be generated at lower cost compared with other renewable energy sources. The capacity factor of geothermal power, or the actual amount of power generated per maximum capacity, is 83%, much higher than wind or large-scale solar power generators. Geothermal energy was expected to be the base load power source that can operate day and night.
The Japanese government has a goal for renewable energy to generate 22 to 24% of total power by 2030. Geothermal energy is targeted to comprise 1% of total power generated. To meet this target, geothermal power capacity needs to increase from 520,000 kilowatts in 2018 to between 1.4 and 1.55 million kilowatts.
The next promising large-scale projects after the Wasabizawa plant are two power plants expected to begin operations in 2024. Both plants will have 15,000 kilowatt-level capacity. One is located in Yuzawa City and the other in Hachimantai City, Akita Prefecture. There are currently about 35 government-supported projects at the survey stage, but those which can start operations by 2030 are limited. Overcoming obstacles to reach the government’s goal will be difficult.