Deep in the mountains of Aso-Kuju National Park, which straddles the border of Kumamoto and Oita prefectures, it’s easy to believe you are in central Hokkaido rather than in central Kyushu. It’s July, but the daytime temperature is in low 20s and evenings are, depending on your preference, either comfortably crisp or bone-chillingly cold.

For this reason, business at local hot springs is quite good. At the Kuju Kanko Hotel, scores of vacationing schoolchildren head for a soak in the baths. In front of the hotel, a few pause to stare at a huge contraption with pipes and hissing steam that appears to have come straight out of a Dr. Seuss tale or Tim Burton film.

What they are looking at is one of Japan’s 19 geothermal plants.

Built in 2000 with financial assistance from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the hotel’s geothermal plant provides 100 percent of the electricity it uses, and there is enough surplus energy to sell to a firm in far-off Osaka.

“The geothermal plant was approved by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1998 and went into operation in 2000. In the beginning, we were generating 500 kwh, but we’re now up to 990 kwh,” said hotel President Yoshiaki Koike.

The Aso-Kuju area is arguably Japan’s geothermal capital. Seven of the country’s 18 geothermal plants are located there, producing nearly 140 mw of power, just over a quarter of the 535-mw total nationwide. Geological surveys of the region indicate more plants could be developed fairly easily.

Conventional wisdom holds that Japan has few natural resources, but geothermal advocates have long argued such thinking ignores this form of energy. A survey by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in 2008 shows Japan ranks third worldwide in geothermal resources, behind Indonesia and the United States. There is an estimated 23.5 gigawatts of geothermal energy that could be tapped — the equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants.

The country’s primary geothermal energy sources are in the Tohoku region, especially Akita and Iwate prefectures, as well as in the south, in Oita and Kagoshima prefectures. In addition to possessing much of the energy itself, Japan also leads the way in geothermal technology, with Japanese-made technology accounting for more than 75 percent of the international market.

Although it did not really take off until after World War II, the use of geothermal energy in Japan has a long history, dating back to 1923, when early experiments in producing electricity were carried out.

Geothermal power generation increased from about 9.5 mw in 1966 to over 535 mw today. There was a spurt of growth in the 1990s as technology became more efficient, reducing the price per kilowatt hour.

“After the oil shock of the 1970s, the government conducted surveys that showed there was clearly more than 20 gw of potential geothermal power. At the time, though, the base cost of geothermal was quite expensive, and it was felt that nuclear power performed the same role,” said Sachio Ehara, professor of earth science and technology at Kyushu University and one of Japan’s top experts on geothermal power.

How does geothermal stack up to other alternative energies?

The price can vary greatly among the 18 geothermal plants, depending on how long they operate and their size. But 2008 government figures indicate a cost of between ¥12 to ¥20 per kilowatt hour. At its cheapest, therefore, geothermal is competitive with other renewable energy forms, and slightly more expensive than fossil fuels.

However, Koike, Ehara and other geothermal advocates agree that, without strong government support in the form of a feed-in tariff over a period of at least 10 years, geothermal energy will neither expand nor become consistently cost-competitive with the cheapest renewable energy forms. The lack of such a tariff and aggressive government support to date has been blamed by renewable energy advocates not only on technological barriers, but also on resistance within METI.

“The most powerful ministry responsible for geothermal is METI and they still promote nuclear power. As long as METI doesn’t revise its way of thinking about geothermal, there won’t be any real development,” Ehara said.

On the other hand, the nation’s utilities are somewhat divided in their views about the potential for geothermal. Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. officials have traditionally been either uninterested in or opposed to expanding geothermal power.

In contrast, both the Kyushu and Tohoku electric power companies have been far more positive. Of Japan’s 18 geothermal plants, Kyushu Electric operates five, and Tohoku Electric runs four.

Other barriers geothermal faces include resistance by landowners to the development of geothermal plants on or beside their property, especially if they are hot-spring resort owners with a lot of local political influence.

The Kuju Kanko Hotel is unique in this regard, Koike says, because it decided to use its geothermal plant as a way to attract guests.

“A lot of hot-spring resort owners are opposed to geothermal plants because they’re afraid it will hurt their image as a natural paradise. But we’re appealing to environmentally conscious customers who appreciate the fact all electricity at the resort comes from geothermal,” Koike said.

There are also survey costs and exploratory drilling issues that will have to be addressed. Even public fears that drilling into geothermal areas will trigger earthquakes will have to be taken into account.

But given Japan’s vast geothermal resources and the limited interest shown by the government and utilities to date, geothermal energy is still fairly cost competitive.

Koike and Ehara are convinced that geothermal is the future, at least for some parts of Japan.

“In order for geothermal to expand, the government has to make clear that geothermal is a domestic natural resource under the law, and based on that, establish a clear road map for the further introduction of geothermal,” Ehara said.

“We’ve got the resources and Japan’s geothermal energy technology is world class. If the government takes such action, geothermal will greatly expand.”

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