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Why Japan Isn’t Tapping It's Incredible Geothermal Potential

Japan, a large energy importer where coal and gas make up two-thirds of electricity generation, has one abundant domestic renewable energy source that has remained untapped-geothermal energy.  

Geothermal resources in Japan, thought to be the world's third largest, could stay deep underground despite Japan's net-zero by 2050 pledge and the fact that it is still very much dependent on fossil fuels for a large part of its electricity consumption.  

Japan lies along the western edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the most seismically active places on Earth. As much as 10 percent of the world's volcanic activity takes place in Japan, and the country is blessed with geothermal resources. 

But a very powerful and centuries-old Japanese industry and tradition - hot spring resorts - is opposed to large-scale development of geothermal energy, fearing that tapping the resources would affect the temperatures and quality of hot springs, a major business with more than 13,000 inns and baths across Japan. 

Japan has some geothermal plants, around 20 facilities generating a total of 535 megawatts (MW). This represents only 0.3% of the total electricity generation in Japan, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).    

There have been some rare examples recently of small geothermal plants co-existing with hot springs - the so-called 'onsen' in Japanese. But an overwhelmingly large part of onsen owners are opposed to geothermal development.  

"Rampant geothermal development is a threat to our culture," Yoshiyasu Sato, owner of a secluded inn next to a hot spring in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture, told The New York Times' investigative reporter Hiroko Tabuchi. 

"If something were to happen to our onsens, who will pay?" Sato says. 

Yutaka Seki, executive director with the National Hot Spring Association, told NYT, "We aren't opposed to geothermal energy for the sake of opposing it."

"But we strongly caution against unchecked large-scale development."

Opposition to geothermal energy development has remained even after the energy crisis of the past two years, which has had Japan's energy import bill surge due to high coal and natural gas prices and has resulted in calls on households and businesses to conserve energy. 

In 2021, natural gas accounted for 35% of electricity production in Japan, followed by coal at 32.5% share. Geothermal energy represented just 0.3% of power generation, despite the fact that the potential would be equivalent to 23 gigawatts (GW), according to IRENA. High upfront costs and rigorous regulatory processes have hindered geothermal development, despite the technical and construction achievements of Japan's domestic giants such as Toshiba and Mitsubishi. 

Some local governments with hot spring resorts have recently introduced new restrictions on geothermal plant development. For example, the town of Kusatsu passed an ordinance last year stating that companies seeking to develop geothermal resources have to prove a project would not negatively impact hot springs in the area.   

Even nuclear energy generation in Japan has made more progress since the start of the energy crisis and the focus on energy security after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

Japan is bringing back nuclear power as a key energy source, looking to protect its energy security in the crisis that has led to surging fossil fuel prices. The Japanese government confirmed in December a new policy for nuclear energy, which the country had mostly abandoned since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. 

A panel of experts under the Japanese Ministry of Industry decided that Japan would allow the development of new nuclear reactors and allow available reactors to operate after the current limit of 60 years.  

But Japan's hot springs are a hurdle to the development of a domestic renewable source of energy. Geothermal energy could generate 10% of Japan's electricity if tapped, analysts say. 

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews.  More