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Repowering Japan

   It’s starting to sound like I do nothing but sit in front of the boob tube, but there was another one of Ikegami Akira’s television specials on Saturday night that is worth mentioning. Part of FujiTV’s series Ano Hi o, Wasurenai: Higashi Nihon Daishinsai kara 1 Nen (I’ll Never Forget That Day: A Year after the Tôhoku Earthquake and Tsunami), Ikegami’s program dealt with both the mechanism of the deadly quake and the energy crisis that has confronted Japan in its wake.

   While last year’s tsunami was directly responsible for the shutdown of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant, subsequent, and might I add legitimate, concerns about the safety of nuclear energy have resulted in all but two of Japan’s 54 commercial nuclear reactors being idled[1]. The remaining two are also scheduled to be shut down soon[2], meaning that a country which once depended on nuclear energy to produce 31.4% of its electricity has had to make up the shortfall by importing more natural gas and coal precisely at a time when fresh tensions in the Middle East are driving fuel prices up.[3] Incidentally, 80% of Japan’s oil and 20% of its natural gas passes through the Strait of Hormuz, underscoring how crucial it is that Japan address its energy needs before another oil shock brings the country to her knees.[4]

   Fortunately, Japan has options.

   By sheer coincidence, I happened to be speaking to an engineer who had just come back from the Kyûshû Electric’s Hatchôbaru geothermal power plant located in central Ôita prefecture near the Asô-Kujû National Park. The largest of 17 geothermal power plants in Japan, Hatchôbaru along with the neighboring Ôdake geothermal power plant produces 122,500kW of electricity, which only amounts to about 1% of Kyûshû Electric’s capacity. The potential for geothermal energy in Japan, however, is great.

    I may be oversimplifying this, but wherever volcanoes are found, a power plant can be set up using the steam generated by heat of the volcano’s magma. Japan, with its 119 active volcanoes—the third most numerous in the world—has the potential to produce some 23,470,000 kW of this clean energy. At present, though, Japan ranks 8th in the world in geothermal energy production, producing only 536,000 kW. What’s more Japan has not built a new geothermal power plant in over ten years. Only 0.3% of Japan’s electricity is currently being supplied by these geothermal plants. In spite of that, a surprising 70% of the word’s geothermal power plants are using turbines produced by Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi and Toshiba.

   If Japan has the capacity and the technology, what then is preventing the country from taking advantage of this resource?

   One, the initial costs can be quite high. Drilling the wells needed for a geothermal power plant costs several million dollars each (I’ve heard as much as five million dollars). And because the wells can only be used for about a year, as many as twenty wells may have to be drilled. The largest geothermal power plant in Iceland has 28 wells.

   Two, the hot spring industry is against it. They worry that if the water is diverted for use in the production of electricity there won’t be any left for the spas Japanese love so well.

   And, three, most of Japan’s volcanoes are located in National Parks which have strict regulation on development.

   In February of this year, however, the Ministry of Environment has signaled that it is willing to consider opening up National Parks for the development of geothermal power. Officials from Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry have also been to Iceland to see how Japan might benefit by taking advantage of this natural resource, which has the potential of producing as much as 20 nuclear reactor’s worth of electricity.

   Ikegami’s special also looked into Brazil’s biofuel industry. A similar system has already been adopted in Miyako-jima (Okinawa prefecture), where bi-products from shôchû and sugar production are being used for bio-fuels and the fiber from sugar canes is burned to produce electricity. The aim is to make the island completely energy-self sufficient.

   Other towns in Japan have also taken the initiative, including one farming village in the Tôhoku region—the name escapes me right now—which currently produces enough energy from biomass and other sources that it is able to sell its excess electricity back to the power company.

   While Japan may not realistically be able to do without nuclear power in the short-term—the demand for electricity, particularly in the summer is still too great—I do think there are things that the country can start doing today to encourage the use and production of alternative energy sources. I’ll address this issue in a day or two. (For more on this, go here.)


[1] According to a recent poll by Tôkyô Shimbun, 80% of Japanese asked were in favor of phasing out nuclear energy.

[2] By law, nuclear reactors in Japan must be idled every 13 months in order for safety checks to be conducted. Once shut down, however, public pressure has prevented them from being put back online.

[3] Before the earthquake, Japan got 31.4% of its electricity from nuclear power plants, 60.3% from thermal power plants, 8.1% from hydropower, and 0.5% from renewables such as wind and solar. Today, 7.3% of electricity is generated by nuclear power plants, 86.3% by thermal power plants, 6.1% by dams, and 0.6 by renewables.

[4] That Japan had the infrastructure in place to compensate for a loss of over 23% of its nuclear power capacity is truly amazing. I don’t think America would be able to make up

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