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Monday, September 23, 2013

Current Events: Geothermal Energy in Japan

In this blog, I would like to take a look at the geothermal electrical power generation options for Japan.

I am not an expert on electrical power generation, though I do play one in my own mind. But… I do have an interest in interesting things and I am curiouser and curiouser than most. Anyhow... I'll try NOT to be so scientific here, because... this is a blog... and I'm trying to present as much factual information as I can. If I have made mistakes, please feel free to drop me a line, and I will correct them.

People who know of my views on electrical power generation in Japan know that I don't really have a problem with nuclear energy when it is done right. Japan did it right at one time, but failed to do proper safety checks and has, essentially, managed to kill the entire industry in their country.

Now... I currently live in Toronto, where some 60% of all of our electrical power production is provided via nuclear reactors. The rest is hydro-electric and wind and something else, probably methane from politician beer farts.

Until recently, Japan was receiving about 30% of its electrical power by way of controlled nuclear reactors.

But all that changed on March 11, 2011 when a 9.0 Magnitude earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami wave(s?) that battered and knocked out power to the Dai-Ichi nuclear facility in Fukushima-ken, causing two solid weeks of panic amongst the populace wondering if their country was going to be irradiated.

It was.

People were forced to evacuate their homes, businesses, schools, and being forced to leave behind pets, farm animals, belongings, etc.—turning once-thriving communities within a 20 kilometer radius of the Dai-ichi facility into ghost towns.

The fact that the very worst of the nuclear accident was over within two or three weeks, it still had not allayed Japan's well-founded fears of nuclear contamination, as the nuclear facility continued to belch out radioactive materials into the air, water and soil.

If we are to believe Japan Prime Minister Abe, the situation has now been controlled, meaning that after two years, no more radioactive material via water contamination is being spilled. Sure.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, people were monitoring the air they breathed, water they drank and the food they ate—and not just in Japan either, but in nervous neighboring countries as well, along with many countries that imported goods from Japan... people were nervous, and rightly so.

While the Dai-ichi reactors continued, as of early September 2013, to leak radioactive contaminated water into the surrounding ground and waters, much of Japan's populace—especially those in the northeast—aren't that interested in having the warming glow of nuclear reactors supply their electrical power generation.

Who wouldn't be gun shy—especially when the bullets fired are radioactive?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, I'm dying of radiation poisoning.

By June of 2011, with Fukushima's nuclear issues dominating Japanese and global media, it was reported that some 80% of Japanese said they were now anti-nuclear (and also distrusted the government to provide them with accurate information).

And - as I mentioned, I am pro-nuclear power when done safely and not willy-nilly.

Which segues nicely back to Japan.


The Japanese government had taken every single nuclear reactor off-line to ensure each was up to snuff safety-wise.

On May 25, 2012, the last of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors went off line, leaving it without nuclear power for the first time since 1970.

Since then, Japanese distrust of the nuclear industry now seems validated as many, many issues were discovered: safety features not followed, built on an earthquake fault, blah-blah-blah.

As of September of 2013, two of the 50 plants have come back on-line. And while country isn't suffering from blackouts or brownouts, what's a neon sign-fascinated country to do?

If we could all forget about nuclear power for the moment, Japan does have options.

While it has few natural power generating resources of its own—forget coal, oil, gas, hydro-electric dammit—but may be able to utilize: solar, wind, tidal and my personal favorite option for the country—geothermal.
Everybody loves geothermal hot springs!

Why geothermal in the Land of the rising sun? Why not solar?

Well… I've lived in Japan for a few years (I'm not there now), and, depending on where one is, it's a hot and humid place in the summer… but that sun always seemed to be covered by clouds.

That's a stupid reason for not opting for solar, but my thoughts regarding geothermal as a viable energy source is one that I think could be a global phenomenon—tapping the Earth's potential to supply energy.

Here's what David Suzuki, Canadian scientist, environmentalist, author, TV show host and board member of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation said while knocking nuclear power: "To import a very complex and difficult technology to boil water in the world’s most seismically active country when there is such vast geothermal potential strikes me as madness.”

We're all mad here

First things first... or perhaps, second things first. Japan is currently the sixth-largest producer of geothermal electricity in the world. Pretty good, right?

Yes and no. Unfortunately, the output still isn't very high in the grand scheme of electrical power generation.

Now first things first.

What is Geothermal Energy?
Geothermal energy is the heat contained within the Earth. There's a lot of it. Without going overly technical,
The Earth’s heat content is 1031 joules. I don't know what that means either. Repeating what I have seen written elsewhere in a scientific research paper, this heat within the Earth naturally flows to the surface by conduction at a rate of 44.2 terawatts (TW), and is replenished by radioactive decay at a rate of 30 TW…

That's 30TW produced and 44.2TW being released at the surface, so yes, the Earth is giving up heat faster than it creates it, so it is not a infinite resource.

But worry not. By the time the Earth stops producing this heat—which helps keep our planet alive and swell—every living creature will be long dead... or our ancestors or genetic mutations of who we used to be will be living in another part of this or some other galaxy or multiverse as part of someone's space zoo or ant farm.

And… to make things perfectly clear… any usage of geothermal power will not cause the Earth to cool down and die. Unless we use it all at once… and then - Kablooey, anyway.

Why Geothermal?
Japan has close to 200 volcanoes in the general vicinity. What? Did you not wonder why its part of the 'ring of fire'?

Ever sat in a hot spring? That's geothermal heat.

Now… picture a process whereby that heat is converted electricity - and presto. I assume it's heat to steam to turn turbines to create electricity. (I'm right, basically... see the very top image.)

Japan has 20 geothermal plants at 18 locations, with the majority of them in the Tohoku and Kyushu areas, putting forth 535.25MW of electricity, which again, is enough to make Japan the sixth-largest geothermal electricity producer on the planet.

In 2007, Japan had 535.2 MW of installed electric generating capacity, which is about about 5% of the world total.

Expanding geothermal power use would benefit turbine makers such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Toshiba Corp., both of which already supply equipment outside Japan.

Japan has actually been involved in geothermal power generation since 1925 when an experiment took place at Beppu-shi, Oita-ken (Oita Prefecture). Beppu is known as the place of the Seven Hells thanks to some wonderful geothermal geysers and pools of dazzling color.
Chinoike Jigoku also known as the "blood pond hell" in Beppu. It features a pond of hot, red water - red because of its iron content. Photo by Andrew Joseph.

The experiments, research and development were stopped by World War 2, but picked up again in 1947, with the Geological Survey of Japan began surveying and such to decide where geothermal power plants could be erected. Matsukawa, in 1966, became Japan's first real geothermal plant.


Now... the thought is that since the Earth is still creating heat, that geothermal energy is renewable... and it is... along with being clean - IE no radioactive waste by-products. That's good.

What should Japan do? It doesn't have oil or gas... it's last nuclear reactor shut down while I was writing this... and the whole country sits atop a whole lot of geothermal areas waiting to be exploited. So Japan does have something it can use to generate power.

Did I say exploited?

Well... perhaps it could utilize its resources better.

Certainly the existing hot springs and bathing facilities must be protected when constructing new geothermal power generating plants... and costs for drilling and even exploration must come down for this to really be viable. That may mean development of new technologies.

So... why has geothermal energy development not been the hot topic as far as power generation goes?

Everyone talks about shutting down the nuclear reactors... but what is taking its place?

PROBLEMS? Well, most of these geothermal hot spots are in national parks - more than 80 percent, according to the Geothermal Research Society of Japan.

Rules set in the 1970s suspended construction of new geothermal power stations inside national parks except for six sites in operation or under construction at the time.
but earlier this year, the Japanese government said it was okay to try and develop geothermal power inside national parks.

For example, Geothermal company Marubeni is conducting a geological survey at the Daisetzuan National Park in Hokkaido, where it will study geological formations in the Shiramizusawa area.

It will take about one year (so maybe Spring of 2014) before they can decide if its worth their while to do a test drill.

And then… they will take a few years to properly survey the area to see if a geothermal plant can be built…

Marubeni is currently asking for permission for five surveys in four national parks.

Refiner company Idemitsu Kosan Co. is conducting a drilling survey in Akita-ken about now.

More Problems?
Well, people who own spas and hot spring inns and resorts are all hot and bothered that the appearance of a geothermal power generating plant will affect business by sucking away the same geothermal heat they need to warm the asses of pampered people (I loved being pampered, as opposed to Pamper-ed).

According to the Japan Spa Association, it says it recognizes that geothermal energy is an option, but is worried about its effect on the environment—the spa environment, I assume. It says that even now some Japanese hot springs have either run out or thinned out, or that there has been a drop in water temperature.

Valid concerns… BUT responsible geothermal power generation companies are just that - responsible. They won't build in an area where the heat could run out!Setting up a geothermal power generating facility is very expensive.

So… I've said how Japan is a player in the global geothermal market, but truthfully, in the grand scheme of power, Japan's geothermal numbers are a proverbial drop in the bucket relative to what it was achieving through nuclear power.

Japan has 539 megawatts of geothermal capacity in operation, about half the output of a typical atomic reactor. Only 4 megawatts of that capacity was added in the past decade, according to data from the government. This is capacity - how much it COULD produce, if it went full tilt.

But, it isn't going full tilt.
Matsukawa geothermal power station.

Japan is expected to put out about 23,000 MW of electricity generated from geothermal operations… which is about 0.2% of Japan's current electricity generation, according to guesstimates from the Geothermal Energy Association. (Globally, 11,228MW of electricity is produced in any given calendar year.)

Hey… want to hear something interesting? The last geothermal power generating plant built in Japan was back in 1999 on Hachijo Island, which lies about 287 kilometers south of Tokyo.

That's not weird, but this is: it is operated by Tokyo Electric Power COmpany (TEPCO) who are responsible for on-going mess of leaky radioactive materials in Fukushima.

I'll just leave things right there.

Japan needs to go to an alternative power generating source… but if TEPCO is involved, I might not be as thrilled.

Andrew Joseph


  1. I like this idea... "Politicians beer farts"!? Chuckle.... If it has to do with power generation, you can bet your bottom dollar that TEPCO will be involved... Still, unless they start building safe reactors using thorium (and even then) people here probably won't allow local government to restart reactors.... We're messed up.

    1. Mike... Google Rob Ford Toronto Mayor. See image. Read all about the alleged crack cocaine video. The gov't funds used for his high school football team that he coached. I met him. He was nice enough, though.