TOKYO: Marubeni Corporation, the biggest investor in electricity generation among Japan’s trading houses, is working on how to revive the geothermal industry and tap heat that powers volcanoes as an alternative to nuclear reactors.
The effort would draw pools of underground heat with a potential of double the current capacity of geothermal projects operating worldwide. That would help Japan shift away from atomic reactors that provided 30 per cent of the nation’s power before the accident in Fukushima two years ago.
“We’ve focused on hydro before,” Masahiro Uegaki, assistant general manager of Marubeni’s domestic power projects, said in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo. “Recently we are developing solar, wind and other renewable energies. Geothermal is one of our new activities.”
Expanding geothermal would benefit turbine makers such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Toshiba Corporation, both of which already supply equipment outside Japan. Marubeni’s study is possible since the government last year eased rules to allow geothermal in protected national parks, part of an effort to boost supplies of renewable energy.
Japan borders the geologically active “Ring of Fire,” with volcanos and rift zones that push pools of heat closer to the Earth’s surface. That heat gives the nation potential for an abundant supply of energy that, like nuclear power, doesn’t pollute the atmosphere.
Pressure to develop geothermal arises from voter concern about nuclear power following the meltdown in Fukushima and an ambition to tap the same volcanic heat reserves used in thousands of hot-spring spas across Japan. All but two of the nation’s 50 nuclear reactors remain shut for safety tests following Fukushima.
More than 70 per cent of respondents in an opinion poll by the Asahi newspaper in February said Japan should scrap nuclear power, a stance favored by environmentalists who note geothermal does the same thing as nuclear with much less risk.
“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,” David Suzuki, a Canadian author, environmentalist and board member of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, said in an interview.
Marubeni operates a Costa Rican power plant that runs off underground heat and is developing another in Indonesia. It plans to conduct a geothermal survey at the Daisetsuzan National Park on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido as early as next month, said Uegaki, the power executive at the company.
The study of geological formations will take place in the Shiramizusawa area, about 930 kilometers (578 miles) north of Tokyo on the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Surveyors will work a year before officials decide whether to conduct test drilling. The next step would be to determine whether the site is suitable for a plant, which usually takes a few years.
It’s among five projects under consideration at four national parks, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Idemitsu Kosan, a Japanese refiner, plans a drilling survey at a park in Akita prefecture in northern Japan this summer.