Hot spring baths block Japan’s geothermal potential

  • Japan has the third largest geothermal resources in the world, which could be an attractive renewable energy option for the country.
  • The hot springs industry opposes geothermal development, which could affect its viability.
  • Geothermal energy accounts for only 0.3% of Japan’s energy needs.
  • For climate change news and analysis, visit News24 The future of climate.

With more than 100 active volcanoes, Japan has the world’s third-largest geothermal resources, but also a powerful industry that strongly opposes the development of the hot springs industry.

Geothermal energy is a renewable resource that harnesses heat from deep within the Earth’s crust, which appears to be an attractive option for energy-poor Japan.

But hot springs, or onsens, are big business in Japan, loved by locals and tourists alike, and the industry fears that geothermal development could mean a drop in water levels and temperatures at their facilities.

“Frankly, if possible, we want geothermal energy developments to stop,” said Yoshiyasu Sato, vice president of the Japan Onsen Association.

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So the baths at Tsuchiyu Onsen, nestled among green mountains along a winding river in northeastern Japan’s Fukushima, are rare; they coexist with a small geothermal plant.

The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster were the catalysts for change in the city, said Takayuki Kato, president of Genki Up Tsuchiyu, a local government organization that manages the renewable energy scheme.

The town of 300 was hit hard by the earthquake, and residents began to explore whether geothermal energy could help revive their fortunes.

“People here always know that hot springs can be used for other purposes,” but they didn’t know how to do it, he explained.

Redevelopment funds were used to build a geothermal plant that opened in 2015 on top of an already existing hot spring.

It is located two kilometers above the city’s baths, where men and women bathe naked in separate areas.

He said the plant “has not changed either the quality or the quantity of water” for onsens in the city.

“Powerful” onsen industry

Sales of the plant’s electricity now fund free local bus routes for children and seniors and have allowed the city to refurbish disused buildings and support local artisans.

And the extra hot water from the plant has created a new tourist attraction: a small colony of giant freshwater crabs that people can catch and grill.

For proponents of geothermal development, it’s a small but promising sign of what could happen in Japan if there’s enough will.

So far, the country generates only 0.3% of its electricity from geothermal energy, but the potential is huge.

Japan’s reserves are estimated at 23 gigawatts, the equivalent of about 20 nuclear reactors, and second only to the United States and Indonesia, according to the National Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

Its potential is even more enticing given the country’s dependence on imported fuel, especially after the 2011 nuclear disaster forced the shutdown of nuclear reactors.

Before the epidemic, about 2,500 people visited the Tsuchiyu plant each year, including some in the onsen industry who were interested in its success.

But very few have been able to emulate that project, and the Japanese government has a modest goal of just one percent of geothermal energy by 2030.

Onsen owners sometimes “refuse to even discuss” the possibility of a geothermal project in their area, said Kasumi Yasukawa of the geothermal division of the government’s energy security agency.

In addition to objections from the “powerful” onsen industry, high upfront costs and long administrative hurdles also deter those interested in building a geothermal plant, he said.

“We want it to stop”

The government has lifted some restrictions in recent years, allowing authorities to explore options for national parks, home to 80% of geothermal resources.

But onsen owners are steadfast in their resistance, arguing that the water sources are fragile and vulnerable to overexploitation.

The Onsen Association’s Sato argues that geothermal energy should not even be considered renewable, pointing to older Japanese plants whose generating capacity declines over time.

JOGMEC’s ​​Yasukawa counters that developers overestimated the potential of these sites, partly due to the lack of scientific knowledge at the time.

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“It seems that the onsen owners’ fears are based on hearsay only,” he said, explaining that geothermal projects intrude into deep rock or sediment that holds groundwater.

“There is no interference with hot spring wells” that draw water from reservoirs closer to the surface, he said.

JOGMEC hopes that projects like the Tsuchiyu Onsen plant can change minds, but there is little sign that the hot springs industry will change its position anytime soon.

If geothermal advocates “have new scientific drilling methods that can allay our fears, that would be great. But they haven’t,” Sato said.

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