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Hot springs block Japan’s geothermal potential

TSUCHIYU-ONSENMACHI (JAPAN) – With over 100 active volcanoes, Japan has the third largest geothermal resources in the world, but also a powerful industry that has staunchly opposed the development of the sector: hot springs.

Geothermal energy is a renewable resource that harnesses heat from deep within the earth’s crust – a seemingly attractive option for energy-poor Japan.

But the hot springs, or onsens, that blanket Japan are a big business loved by locals and tourists alike, and the industry fears that developing geothermal energy could cause water levels and temperatures at its facilities to drop.

“To be honest, we would like to see geothermal energy development stopped if possible,” said Yoshiyasu Sato, vice president of the Japan Onsen Association.

As such, the baths at Tsuchiyu Onsen, nestled among verdant mountains along a winding river in northeastern Japan’s Fukushima, are a rarity – they coexist alongside a small geothermal facility.

It was the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that sparked a change in the city, said Takayuki Kato, president of Genki Up Tsuchiyu, a local government organization that manages the renewable energy program.

The town of 300 people was badly damaged by the quake and residents began exploring whether geothermal energy could revitalize their fortunes.

“People here have always known that the hot springs could be used for other purposes,” but they didn’t know how, he explained.

Reconstruction funds were used to build the geothermal plant, which opened in 2015 over a pre-existing hot spring.

It is two kilometers upstream from the city’s baths, where men and women bathe nude in separate sections.

The facility “has not changed the quality or quantity of water” for onsen in the city, he said.

– “Mighty” Onsen Industry –

Sale of electricity from the plant now funds free local bus rides for children and seniors and has enabled the city to renovate derelict buildings and support local artisans.

And extra hot water from the facility has created a new tourist attraction — a small colony of giant freshwater shrimp for people to catch and grill.

For proponents of geothermal development, this is a small but promising sign of what could be replicated across Japan given enough will.

Currently, the country only produces 0.3 percent 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, according to the national agency for natural resources and energy, behind only the United States and Indonesia.

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

Before the pandemic, around 2,500 people visited Tsuchiyu’s plant each year, including some in the onsen industry who were intrigued by its success.

But few have been able to replicate the project, and the Japanese government has a modest target of just 1 percent of electricity from 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 state energy security agency JOGMEC.

In addition to objections from the “powerful” onsen industry, high initial costs and lengthy administrative hurdles are also holding back those interested in building a geothermal power plant, she said.

– “We want it to stop” –

The government has lifted some restrictions in recent years, allowing authorities to seek opportunities in national parks, where 80 percent of geothermal resources are found.

But onsen owners are steadfast in their Resistance and argue that water sources are fragile and prone to overexploitation.

Onsen Association’s Sato argues that geothermal power shouldn’t even be considered renewable, pointing to older Japanese plants whose production capacity has declined over time.

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

“It seems that onsen owners’ fears are just based on rumours,” she said, explaining that geothermal projects tap deep rocks or sediments that contain groundwater.

“There’s no disruption to the sources of hot springs,” which use water from reservoirs closer to the surface, she said.

JOGMEC hopes projects like the Tsuchiyu Onsen facility can change minds, but there’s little sign the hot spring industry is about to change stance.

If proponents of geothermal energy had “new scientific drilling methods that could allay our fears, that would be great. But they don’t,” Sato said.

Source: Crypto News Deutsch

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