via Mainichi News / February 4, 2014 / Construction plans for dozens of mid-sized geothermal power plants have surfaced across Japan, with its rich geothermal resources coming under the spotlight in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Chuo Electric Power Co. will herald the move in April by initiating the operation of a new geothermal plant in Kumamoto Prefecture — the country’s first such facility to be inaugurated in 15 years. Orix Corp. and Toshiba Corp. are also planning to put their geothermal power station into service sometime around the spring of 2015. There are also dozens of other plans across the country to build geothermal plants each with a maximum output of less than 15,000 kilowatts.
“We’d like to connect our customers living in urban condominiums and rural areas,” said Yasutoshi Hirano, vice president at Chuo Electric Power Co., a Tokyo-based company that makes bulk purchases of electricity to supply power to condominium households at low prices.
The company has undertaken the construction and operation of a geothermal plant from a firm called “Waita-kai” operated by residents in a hot spring resort in Oguni, Kumamoto Prefecture. Although the planned power station with a maximum output of 2,000 kilowatts will only cater to 1,500 households, the construction of a geothermal plant with output capacity greater than 1,000 kilowatts is to be the first in the country since 1999, when Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Hachijojima Geothermal Power Station was put into operation on Hachijo Island, south of Tokyo.
The development of geothermal power generation often comes in conflict with the interests of local residents, who are worried about a possible reduction in the amount of hot spring water as a result of such construction. Chuo Electric Power Co. overcame such a hurdle by building a geothermal plant not as large as ones developed by major power companies and by sharing profits with Waita-kai. Chuo Electric Power further plans to build five more geothermal plants of a similar scale over the next five years. The company will sell electricity to major utilities for the time being but is planning to eventually retail power to condominiums.
Orix and Toshiba are seeking to launch the operation of a geothermal plant in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, sometime around the spring of 2015, followed by the construction of similar facilities in the Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kyushu regions. Hidetake Takahashi, head of Orix’s business development department, said, “The electricity market is right before the break of dawn (ahead of the deregulation of electric power). We’d like to make geothermal power the pillar of our new business.”
While large-scale geothermal plants normally require environmental assessments spanning three to four years, mid-sized geothermal power stations are not subject to such regulations. The purchase price for renewable energy generated by a power plant whose maximum output is less than 15,000 kilowatts is also set relatively high at 42 yen per kilowatt hour under the feed-in tariff system, encouraging new companies to enter the business. The purchase price is set far cheaper at 27.3 yen per kilowatt hour for renewable energy generated by plants with a maximum output of 15,000 kilowatts or more.
As a volcanic country, Japan is blessed with geothermal resources that are the world’s third largest in volume behind the United States and Indonesia. The potential of geothermal power generation is high, but opposition from local residents and construction regulations within national and quasi-national parks had hampered the development of geothermal power. The change in the tide came following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which prompted the government to relax regulations and trim assessment periods. A consortium of 10 companies including Idemitsu Kosan Co. and Inpex Corp. is planning to develop the nation’s largest geothermal plant within the Bandai-Asahi National Park in Fukushima Prefecture, with an output capacity of 270,000 kilowatts. The consortium is eyeing to start operating the plant sometime in the early 2020s.
According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, around 20 locations across the country are under survey for potential geothermal power generation by trading houses, oil companies, local governments, hot spring associations and other entities. Apart from this, preliminary surveys are also underway at 42 locations in the country, signaling the arrival of a booming geothermal market in the near future.