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Japan should make better use of geothermal power: Enel CEO

Russia's invasion of Ukraine intensifies push for global decarbonization

Steam rises from natural holes in the ground, also known as fumaroles, near a geothermal power station operated by Enel Green Power, a unit of Enel, in Sasso Pisano, Italy.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- The CEO of Italian power giant Enel Group is calling on Japan to expand its use of geothermal and other forms of renewable energy as the country works to decarbonize.

Japan and South Korea can do more in terms of renewable power generation because solar, wind and geothermal resources are abundant in the two countries, Francesco Starace said in an interview with Nikkei.

In addition to solar and wind power, Starace sees huge growth potential for geothermal power generation in Japan because of its many active volcanoes and rich geothermal resources. These have not been fully utilized as many Japanese have a negative view of geothermal power, largely due to environmental concerns.

But Starace, whose country is the birthplace of geothermal power, has advice for Japan. "I think there is, as always, some concern that if you do something down below the earth, something will happen to you above the earth. This is understandable. But maybe they should come and see how geothermal plants are run," Starace said.

Starace pointed out that geothermal power plants in scenic parts of Italy have not had any adverse impacts on the environment. He also noted that many companies in the food processing industry use heat from such plants to process food without burning fuel.

Francesco Starace, CEO of Italian power group Enel, says Japan should take better advantage of its vast geothermal resources to reduce its carbon emissions.   © Getty Images

There is growing global pressure to reduce or end coal-fired power generation as part of the decarbonization effort. Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven big industrialized countries that has not made a clear promise to end its reliance on coal power.

Starace, for his part, sounded the death knell for coal, saying, "I think coal will phase out anyway for economic reasons." He said coal power is being phased out not due to pressure from politicians and policymakers but because it is too dangerous from an environmental standpoint.

"At the end of the day, it will become less and less economical," he said. The Enel chief suggested that whether or not Japan announces an end to coal-fired power generation, it will eventually disappear from the market.

Nevertheless, with the rise of emerging economies such as China and India, greenhouse gas emissions in the Asia-Pacific region are growing rapidly. Starace said that from the standpoint of global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, he is much more concerned about the coal-fired power plants still being built in China and India.

At the same time, his is positive about the development of the two countries' renewable energy sectors. China is one of the fastest-growing renewable energy markets. India's market is also growing significantly, he said.

Some point out that Europe is now burning more coal, as natural gas imports from Russia have tumbled following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. But Starace said this does not signify a return to coal. "The retirement of certain coal plants could be delayed, maybe one year or two. But in the medium [to] long term, there is no way for coal to remain in the [energy] mix of Europe stably," he said.

Starace also stressed the risk of Europe continuing to rely on fossil fuels, as it has to import a significant portion of such resources from elsewhere. It is clearly dangerous for the European Union to be dependent on natural gas, regardless of where it comes from, he said. "It's dangerous for security of supply, and it's also dangerous for [the] climate," he said.

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