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MORIOKA, Iwate Pref. (Kyodo) Geothermal power, touted as an alternative energy after the 1973 oil crisis, is being jeopardized by higher costs and difficulties to secure sites for plants.

The problems are severe enough that the technology could die out, despite the growing need for Japan to diversify its sources of energy as the price of crude oil skyrockets.

Geothermal power generation is the process of converting hot water or steam from deep beneath the Earth’s surface into electricity.

“Without being influenced by atmospheric phenomena, stable generation can be made, and the energy is inexhaustible,” said Naonori Orii, deputy general affairs director at Tohoku Hydropower and Geothermal Energy Co. of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture.

The company began operating Japan’s first commercial geothermal plant, the Matsukawa Geothermal Plant, in the city of Hachimantai, Iwate Prefecture, 40 years ago.

Geothermal generation is “effective against global warming,” Orii said.

The process emits less than 3 percent of the carbon dioxide given off in thermal generation.

Plants producing geothermal energy, which attracted attention as a clean energy and a way to free Japan from its dependence on oil imports, were built mostly in the Tohoku region and Kyushu up until the mid-1990s.

Each power company estimated in 1996 that geothermal generation would total 600,000 kw by the end of fiscal 2000 and 2.8 million kw by the end of fiscal 2010.

But since a plant was built on Hachijojima Island in 1999, no more plants have gone up.

Combined output at the country’s 19 plants at the end of fiscal 2005 accounted for only 0.2 percent of the national energy supply. They generated about 530,000 kw, half of the average output of Japan’s nuclear power plants, which total about 1 million kw.

Another problem Japan faces is it has become increasingly difficult to find locations over hot water resources.

The official in charge of geothermal resources at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization said a study to find a good location for a plant takes more than 10 years, and, “There’s no knowing whether resources actually exist. It’s difficult to build a new plant.”

State subsidies for survey expenses have been halved from about 20 years ago, when they were at their peak.

Worries about possible damage to the land and the draining of thermal water for hot springs are also barriers.

Volcanic areas with the magma to produce the hot water and steam needed for the plants are mostly designated as national parks. Building a generation plant in those areas is virtually impossible under the Natural Parks Law.

Electric Power Development Co., or J-Power, hoped to build a plant near the “onsen” spa town of Oguni in Kumamoto Prefecture but could not get a site.

“We explained that there would be no influence on hot springs and steam for household use, but we couldn’t get the (landowners) on our side,” a company official said.

Generating 1 kwh costs about 13 yen at a geothermal plant, compared with 10 yen at an oil-powered plant and 6 yen at a nuclear plant.

Hiroaki Niitsuma, a professor at Tohoku University and head of the Japan Geothermal Research Society, said the government is to blame for the industry faltering.

“The state only had the idea of having an alternative energy and has failed to pay attention to (geothermal energy’s) environmental merit,” Niitsuma said. “Under these conditions, this excellent technology will die out.”

One possible way out is new research into a new process in which cracks are made in rock underground and water is introduced to create steam.

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