Geothermal energy in Japan: great potential but difficult to exploit – Science et Avenir

With hundreds of active volcanoes, Japan has the third largest geothermal resources in the world. But their energy exploitation is very low because of the main opponents: the owners of “onsen”, ubiquitous in the archipelago of hot water baths.

Nestled in a hollow of green mountains along a meandering river near Fukushima City (northeast), the modest hot spring resort Tsuchiyu Onsen is a rather exceptional case in Japan.

Hard hit by a terrible 2011 earthquake in the region, which also caused a fatal tsunami along the coast and a nuclear accident at Fukushima, this village of just 300 people decided to bet on geothermal energy for recovery.

“Here they always knew that hot springs could be used for more than just bathing, but they didn’t know how to do it,” said Takayuki Kato, president of Genki Up Tsuchiyu, the municipality’s operations manager. renewable energy.

Takayuki Kato, boss of Genki Up Tsuchiyu, in front of the Tsuchiyu-Onsen small geothermal power plant, November 28, 2022 (AFP – Yuichi YAMAZAKI)

That all changed after 2011. Particularly thanks to government funds for renovation, in 2015 Tsuchiya Onsen was able to equip itself with a small geothermal power plant built upstream from the village, over a pre-existing hot water well and conveniently accessible. .

“Wonderful” conditions, says Mr. Kato. Another miracle, he says, is that the plant “didn’t change the quality or quantity of water” for the onsen, which is a major fear among hotel owners about geothermal power in Japan.

Before the pandemic, the village’s geothermal power plant attracted about 2,500 visitors a year, including professionals from across the archipelago intrigued by its success. But “very few” were able to imitate this because the planetary arrangements in Tsuchiya Onsen were exceptional, Mr. Kato notes.

– Lots of pitfalls –

View of Tsuchiya Onsen, a hot spring resort near Fukushima, November 28, 2022 (AFP - Yuichi YAMAZAKI)View of Tsuchiya Onsen, a hot spring resort near Fukushima, November 28, 2022 (AFP – Yuichi YAMAZAKI)

During its annual fiscal year 2021/22 (ending March 31), Japan generated only 0.3% of its electricity from geothermal energy, and the government’s 2030 target remains very modest: 1%.

A paradoxical situation, given that the potential national resources in this area, the largest in the world after the US and Indonesia, are estimated at 23 gigawatts, the equivalent of about twenty nuclear reactors, and that Japan suffers from a heavy dependence on energy. import.

The main hurdle comes from onsen, a sector “so powerful in Japan,” explains Kasumi Yasukawa, manager of the geothermal division of the Japanese state agency Jogmec, which specializes in the country’s energy security.

These pillars of Japan’s tourism “sometimes even refuse to discuss” the possibility of a geothermal project in their area, laments Ms. Yasukawa.

These projects also involve significant upfront costs, large initial uncertainties, and lengthy administrative procedures.

However, in recent years, the government has lifted some restrictions, which now allows exploration of the geothermal potential in national parks, where 80% of these resources are located.

– Fears of interference –

Tsuchiyu-Onsen Spa Hotel Owner Tsuyoshi Imaizumi November 28, 2022 (AFP - Yuichi YAMAZAKI)Tsuchiyu-Onsen Spa Hotel Owner Tsuyoshi Imaizumi November 28, 2022 (AFP – Yuichi YAMAZAKI)

“Honestly, if possible, we would like to see the geothermal energy dynamic stopped in Japan,” Yoshiyasu Sato, vice president of the Japan Onsen Association, told AFP.

He refuses to consider it “renewable energy”, citing the country’s geothermal power plants as an example, whose production capacity has dwindled over time.

In addition, the hot springs that power the onsen are fragile, so their flow and temperature can drop if overused, he stresses.

“It appears that onsen owners’ fears are based on hearsay,” Ms. Yasukawa said. If geothermal projects use deep underground water reservoirs (aquifers), there is “no interference” with onsen, which draw water from separate reservoirs close to the surface, she says.

As for the decline in production of some old geothermal power plants in the country, this is due to the fact that their creators “overestimated” the energy potential, due to the lack of sufficient scientific knowledge about deep aquifers at that time, according to Ms. K. Yasukawa .

Tsuchiyu Onsen Hot Spring Resort near Fukushima, November 28, 2022 (AFP - Yuichi YAMAZAKI)Tsuchiyu Onsen Hot Spring Resort near Fukushima, November 28, 2022 (AFP – Yuichi YAMAZAKI)

The state agency Jogmec and other Japanese proponents of geothermal energy are also hoping to change the mindset by promoting its positive benefits for local communities.

Through the sale of electricity generated by a geothermal power plant, Tsuchiyu-onsen offers free access to a local bus for children and the elderly, supports its artisans, and renovates abandoned buildings.

And the surplus of hot water at the plant has created a new tourist attraction: a small freshwater shrimp farm that can be used to fish before grilling.

But these arguments do not matter much for onsen. If the promoters of geothermal energy “have new scientific methods of drilling that would take away our fears, that would be very good. But they don’t have them,” Mr. Sato counters.

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