Japan needs to find an alternative to nuclear energy, and it needs to do so in a hurry. The Japanese energy mix has been in a serious state of flux since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, after which Japan shut down all 54 of the nation’s nuclear reactors as they awaited the prescription of newer, stricter safety standards.
Since then, nuclear power has not made a great comeback in Japan. Yes, some (but certainly not all) of the nuclear reactors were eventually brought back online, but the Japanese public, to a large degree, no longer trusts or supports nuclear energy.
Headlines this month will only serve to exacerbate the issue, with Japan’s environment minister announcing that the government will likely have to dump massive quantities of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear site into the Pacific ocean. That environment minister has now been replaced with a predecessor who says that Japan will need to walk away from nuclear entirely.
Without being able to count on nuclear energy, Japan has scrambled for alternative resources like natural gas and coal, but these heavily polluting resources compromise Japan’s pledge to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Now, more than eight years after the Fukushima disaster, Japan may finally have found its solution to a greener energy future.
Japan ranks third in the world for geothermal resources, according to data from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, with the United States and Indonesia occupying the number one and number two slots. Now the Japanese government wants to help harness those geothermal power resources (which is sourced from underground heat produced by Japan’s volcanoes) for their energy mix.
The Japanese government plans to help develop geothermal energy in the volcanic island nation by enabling the private sector to invest in this “lagging area of renewable energy,” according to reporting from the Nikkei Asian Review. The government will facilitate early testing, Nikkei goes on to say. “State-owned resources agency Jogmec will conduct test bores -- part of the financially risky early phase of development -- on behalf of potential developers starting in the fiscal year from April 2020.”
These test bores are a huge investment of time and money, and these prohibitive costs have been a major deterrent to private investors who would otherwise be interested in developing Japan’s potentially lucrative geothermal energy sector. “Test bore surveys take about two years and cost the equivalent of several million dollars with no guarantee of success,” says Nikkei.
State subsidies of test bores will be a big help to kick-starting Japan’s geothermal industry, but the private sector has called for more than that. Even after successful test bores are carried out and paid for, you’re still looking at a decade of development before a working geothermal plant can come online in that location. What’s more, “a bigger role by Jogmec and the industry ministry, which oversees it, could also help ease the regulatory burden associated with drilling.” Regulation is particularly strict in the geothermal drilling sector because many of the nation’s geothermal resources are in protected natural areas, like national parks.
Geothermal energy already takes up a considerable portion of Japan’s energy mix, but in the past, it has seen too many limits to growth to be able to take the place of a quick, cheap fossil fuel like nuclear or coal. Geothermal does have a lot of benefits, however, being clean, renewable, and not weather-dependent like solar power or wind power. For these reasons, among others, the Japanese government is making geothermal energy a key part of its plans for the future and is counting on the sector expanding considerably. Nikkei reports that geothermal energy production “forms a piece of Japan's goal of increasing electricity from renewable sources to between 22% and 24% of the total by fiscal 2030, up from 16% in fiscal 2017.”
With such a lengthy development process for the geothermal energy they’re counting on, and a populace growing more and more averse to nuclear and emissions-heavy fossil fuels, Japan has no time to waste.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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