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Japan's nuclear dilemma: Is geothermal the answer?

Japan's hot spring operators were once vocal opponents of geothermal power, which, along with other forms of renewable energy, is now being considered as an alternative to nuclear power.

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Until recently, Japan's development of geothermal was mainly hindered by a ban on building plants in national parks, where some 80 percent of potential sites are located. But the government decided to relax the ban in five areas after the Fukushima accident.

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Read the Monitor's Focus story on Japan's nuclear waste

In addition to the tariffs, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has earmarked about $29 million in subsidies for the next year to encourage communities and private investors to develop geothermal sources. Most of the money will be used to guarantee loans and fund research and drilling.

Theoretically, geothermal could produce 24 million kilowatts of electricity here – making Japan the country with the third-biggest output in the world after the United States and Indonesia.

Plans for geothermal

Now, Japan's 18 geothermal plants account for just 0.2 percent – or 537,000 kilowatts of installed capacity – of the total energy share, according to the trade and industry ministry. No plants with a capacity of more than 10,000 kilowatts have been built for 16 years.

Environment Minister Goshi Hosono said Japan planned to increase geothermal's share to 3.88 million kilowatts by around 2030.

Experts say that target is ambitious, but achievable. "Considering various bottlenecks and difficulties and long lead time, reaching that number by 2030 will require a massive effort by regulators and developers, but it is not impossible," says Emi Mizuno, of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation.

Ms. Mizuno also notes that previous geothermal plants in Japan have not caused hot springs to dry up. "The current geothermal plants in Japan have never caused the problems that onsen communities are worried about, such as the changes in onsen quality and quantity and/or pollution," she says.

In Tsuchiyu, profits from the venture will be used to repair and replace hotels that were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake. "The facility will be very unobtrusive, says Kazuya Ikeda, manager of the Tsuchiyu onsen tourist association, adding that "there will be a limited effect on the environment."

And if the geothermal experiment works, it should allay anxiety in other onsen towns. Eventually, the facility will meet just about all of the town's energy needs.

"The fact that the Tsuchiyu project is located in Fukushima has a significant symbolic meaning," says Mizuno.

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