In quest for safe energy, Japan eases geothermal restrictions

March 24, 2012
Geothermal monkey bath

As a somewhat silver lining to the terrible black cloud that was the Great Eastern Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan a year ago, it appears the country is finally come round to tapping its massive geothermal energy potential.

Sitting smack atop one of the world’s most active volcanic regions it has been perplexing that the Japanese have basically ignored the thermal energy right under their own feet, even while helping fellow Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines develop theirs.

Now, after not adding any geothermal power generating capacity since 1999, Japanese firms are reportedly looking at building a massive geothermal plant in, where else, but Fukushima of course.

The new project being considered is a 270 MW geothermal plant that would be Japan's biggest at a cost of around USD1.2 billion. The Nikkei newspaper said the project is being floated by a consortium led by Idemitsu Kosan and Inpex Corp to take advantage of the easing of drilling restrictions in national parks.

In an announcement this week that would have environmentalists in most Western countries shouting from the treetops, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment government said it would allow vertical geothermal drilling in its national parks, providing certain conditions are met.

Until now, only diagonal drilling from outside of protected zones in parks was allowed, but the new regulations will allow drilling inside two of three specific national park zones, based on natural views, biodiversity and other factors.

Studies show Japan, a land of volcanoes, ranks as the world's third richest nation in geothermal power, with the potential to derive 23.4-GW of energy. It currently has only 540-MW worth of commercial plants because some 80 percent of prospective geothermal sites lie in previously off-limits national parks.

Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, interest in renewable energy has jumped but representatives for Inpex and other firms in the project stressed that the plans were only very conceptual and that they were nowhere near reaching a decision.

Other firms in the consortium include Mitsubishi Materials, Japan Petroleum Exploration (Japex) and Mitsui Oil Exploration Co, according to the Nikkei report.

The tsunami-devastated area has attracted other high profile renewable energy projects over the past few weeks as the government tries to move away from its dependence on nuclear power in the face of harsh public dissent.

Japan-based trading firm Marubeni and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced a plan in early March to construct the world’s first floating wind farm consisting of three offshore wind turbines, with 16-MW of total capacity. Work on the project will start as early as this year and is scheduled for completion in March 2016.

Then only a couple days later, the city of Iwanuma, located in nearby Miyagi Prefecture, said it will use unrestorable farmland ravaged by the ocean waters to house a 15-MW solar plant capable of generating 18 million kWh of power.