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Energy

Geothermal hunt heats up in Japan, from ski country to hot spring areas

Previously untapped national parks will be explored, in bid to hit emissions target

Kyushu Electric Power's Hatchobaru geothermal station: Japan aims to identify promising sites for such facilities in national parks and pass them on to the private sector. (Photo by Kazuma Yamada)

TOKYO -- Japan will expand its search for geothermal power sources in national parks and other areas it has been reluctant to tap, despite having the world's third-largest reserves, Nikkei has learned.

About 30 locations will be assessed in a new government-funded phase of exploration, overseen by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, to contribute to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Only five were studied in earlier surveys.

Around 80% of sites suited for geothermal power in volcanic Japan are thought to be in national parks. The Environment Ministry has long resisted large-scale development in these areas to protect their landscape and ecosystems.

But with Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi calling this year for greater development of resources within such parks, the push for geothermal energy has gained momentum. The new phase of exploration will stretch from Hokkaido's ski country in the north to Kyushu, famous for Beppu and other hot spring resorts, in the southwest.

The country aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 46% between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2030 on its way to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Energy from underground heat is seen as contributing to that goal in Japan, given its stability compared with other renewable sources like solar and wind. Government plans call for geothermal accounting for 1% of electricity production in fiscal 2030.

METI, which is responsible for Japan's energy policy, will request 18.3 billion yen ($166 million) in the fiscal 2022 budget for exploration and development of new geothermal sources, up roughly 60% from 11 billion yen allocated in 2021. 

It takes roughly eight years after identifying a site to start producing geothermal power there, meaning the clock is ticking for Japan to meet its 2030 target.

Shikotsu-Toya national park in Hokkaido, Japan. Around 80% of sites suited for geothermal power in volcanic Japan are thought to be in national parks. (Photo by Shinichi Arakawa)

Japan has a geothermal potential of 23,470 megawatts, behind only the U.S. and Indonesia, the industry ministry says. But actual generating capacity totals only 600 MW, trailing countries like the Philippines, New Zealand and Mexico with less than half as much potential.

Over half of the proposed funding will go to a national survey run by Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. JOGMEC will spend about two years on surface and drilling surveys.

The state-funded natural resources explorer will pass promising sites on to private sector developers like Kyushu Electric Power, which has already made inroads into geothermal energy. About half of the sites being surveyed could be commercialized, the industry ministry projects.

JOGMEC has studied five sites, including in the Daisetsuzan and Towada-Hachimantai national parks, since the work began in fiscal 2020. It plans to study 15 more sites across Japan in fiscal 2021 and another 15 in 2022, some of which are within the same parks. The industry ministry is working with the Environment Ministry, which oversees the parks, on details of the studies.

In its draft basic energy policy released last month, METI named geothermal as a stable source for baseload energy -- a category that includes nuclear power and fossil fuels. Japan aims to increase renewables to between 36% and 38% of its electricity mix by fiscal 2030 from 18% in 2019. The country will need about 1,500 MW of geothermal capacity to lift this source to 1%, from 0.3% now.

Japan looks to boost geothermal capacity to 1,000 MW through projects already underway. Tokyo aims to add another 500 MW of capacity from sites found in the national survey.

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