Japan’s Way Forward: The role of Geothermal

March 28, 2011

Japan’s location on the Pacific ring of fire obviously carries risks, as we’ve seen. But there’s a blessing as well, which may point the way for clean, reliable power in the future.


Japan is sitting on enough untapped geothermal power to replace all its planned nuclear stations over the next decade.

But, battling to control its crippled Fukushima nuclear complex, and planning to build 13 more nuclear power stations, Japan has no plans to harness its estimated 23.5 gigawatts (GW) in geothermal potential — other than to develop hot springs.

Geothermal energy, which in Asia struggles under limited government and funding support, is likely to attract interest as investors rethink the outlook for nuclear power following the crisis at Fukushima.

Straddled along the Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of seismic activity, Asia’s geothermal reservoirs are among the world’s largest. Indonesia alone holds 40 percent of the world’s total reserves, but less than 4 percent is being developed, leaving the sector wide open for growth.

The article points out that the cost of geothermal is high.  But when the costs of the current accident are finally tallied, it might look better than more nuclear investment.

Heat within 10,000 meters of the earth’s crust contains 50,000 times more energy than all the oil and natural gas resources in the world.

That heat, once you tap into it, is free. But harnessing it is costly.

A geothermal project is like an oil or mining project. The size of a resource is unknown until a series of drilling activity takes place. The upfront cost of developing geothermal energy can be high.

A 20 MW geothermal power plant requires an initial $7 million to assess, and then another $20-$40 million to drill.

Last year, Energy expert Lester Brown noted:

“Japan could make geothermal energy the centre of its new energy economy just as the US or China will make wind the centre of theirs,” Lester Brown, president of the US-based Earth Policy Institute, told a news conference.

“There are no leaders in the world today in this field. There is no industrial country in the world that now has a well established geothermal industry” Brown said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.

Japan, located at the crossroads of four  and on what is known as the “Pacific Ring of Fire” and dotted with volcanoes, is one of the world’s most quake-prone countries.

If Japan can launch full development of geothermal energy technology, “it would not only lower  in Japan, but it would also give Japanese industry the potential for playing a leading role in developing the world’s geothermal energy resources.” he said.


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