Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source that uses heat from deep within the earth’s crust to generate electricity. Japan has more than 100 active volcanoes, making it the third largest reservoir of geothermal energy in the world—an attractive option for energy-starved Japan. However, geothermal power generation in Japan has not progressed in decades, facing incredible opposition from Japan’s extremely powerful hot spring industry.
Iceland is close to attaining 100% of their electricity and heat from renewable sources, with geothermal energy accounting for over a quarter of total energy as of 2020. Japan, which is also abundantly rich in geothermal resources, has massive potential for geothermal power generation—estimated at 23.47 GW or 20 nuclear reactors—and is third only to the U.S. and Indonesia.
Japan is the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases and will need more clean energy sources if they wish to meet climate goals and mitigate their dependence on fossil fuel imports. Most nuclear power in Japan is still offline; experts estimate that if all of Japan’s geothermal resources were to be developed for power generation, it could provide 10% of Japan’s power, surpassing the country’s power generation from hydro, solar, wind, or nuclear in 2019.
Japanese hot spring operators oppose geothermal power projects
Unfortunately, as of now, geothermal energy only accounts for 0.3% of Japan’s electricity. Experts believe this is a huge waste for resource-poor countries that urgently need cleaner sources of power. The Japanese government is attempting to overhaul their energy system and expects to double the country’s geothermal energy capacity by 2030, which includes opening up national parks for geothermal development and accelerating environmental assessments to help move geothermal power projects forward. To further stimulate interest, the Japanese government is also willing to pay higher than market prices for geothermal power generation, but this only applies to small-scale plants who are willing to forego environmental assessments and have less rigorous regulatory processes. Nonetheless, these small-scale plants will only be able to supply electricity to a few hundred households, which is not enough to make a significant impact on Japan’s energy market.
Geothermal energy development in Japan has mostly faced local opposition. The biggest resistance comes from more than 10,000 onsen operators who are concerned that geothermal development will damage their mineral-rich hot springs. However, the Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security (JOGMEC) has stated that geothermal power projects use rocks that are deep underground or sedimentary rocks that contain groundwater. This will not interfere with hot springs, which uses water closer to the surface of a reservoir. But, scientists are uncertain of the relationship between hot springs and deep geothermal energy. Experts in geothermal science at Kyoto University say that the full consequences of geothermal development have yet to be fully understood.
Federal geothermal projects have also faced opposition from lower-level governments who have recently begun imposing new restrictions. For instance, in the onsen resort town of Kusatsu in northern Tokyo, a law was passed last year requiring developers to provide evidence that geothermal projects would have no impact on hot springs—indirectly hindering their progress. The government of Oita Prefecture, which has the most hot springs in all of Japan, recently expanded the city of Beppu’s no-drilling zone.
There have only been a few successful cases to date. For example, the Tsuchiyu Onsen in Fukushima Prefecture was severely damaged during the 2011 earthquake. To help rebuild the town, the residents agreed to install a geothermal power plant at the site of the original onsen using reconstruction funds. In the past eight years, there has been no change in the quality or quantity of hot spring water in the town, and sales from the electricity generated has provided a plethora of benefits including free access to the local bus for children and the elderly, support to local craftsmen, and renovation of abandoned buildings.
Unfortunately, these success stories have not yet convinced other Japanese onsen operators, and some are refusing to discuss the possibility of developing geothermal energy in their area. They have even outright stated that they hoped there were new scientific drilling methods that could help them change their minds, but that has yet to happen. Japan aims to have 38% of their energy come from renewable sources by 2030, but geothermal plants take about 8 years from construction to power generation, which means Japan is running out of time.