At first glance, Japan would seem a prime candidate for widespread geothermal electricity generation. The resource exists -- one of few types of energy where Japan's domestic resources can be rated as good-to-excellent.
And Japanese suppliers and contractors have even built some of the most successful geothermal generating stations in the world -- in leading jurisdictions such as New Zealand.
Until March 2011, however, there was little prospect for expansion. First, went the common refrain, Japanese geothermal resources were focused in national park areas where development was prohibited. Second, it is not possible to develop a geothermal plant without the consent of hot spring operators in the vicinity, who fear that their hot water resource will be damaged.
Despite an increasingly good understanding of underground resources, and a strong basis to believe that hot spring resources are separate and distinct from the much deeper resources used for geothermal power generation, the fear continues.
In late 2011, headlines announced proposed regulatory reforms intended to allow geothermal plants to go forward in national park areas, with appropriate protections. Likewise, other regulatory reforms were to cut the amount of time required to launch a geothermal plant from the current 15 years to ... only 10 years.
Ten years, to develop a renewable plant using relatively mature technology? At that point, I lost interest.
Still, there was an announcement in March that the Ministry of Environment had followed through on the deregulation of parklands, and Idemitsu Kosen and a group of other large Japanese companies announced plans for a project in NW Fukushima Prefecture -- what better place, after all, to win public support for a renewable energy project? The NW Fukushima project, in Bandai-Asahi National Park, was made possible by this very reform, with a 270MW plant envisaged, near several active volcanos and excellent geothermal resources.
In early April, Bloomberg reported that its own consulting arm believed the regulatory reforms and feed-in-tariff should revitalized geothermal power in Japan, with capacity nearly quadrupling from a current 530MW to over 2GW by the 2020s.
The regulatory reform is intended to allow some development in national park areas, with appropriate environmental protections and consent of any affected users of the geothermal resource. Also, approval of the relevant prefectural government would be required. (Fukushima Prefecture's support for the Idemitsu plan was widely reported).
Even better, the results of a Nikkei Shimbun survey were announced on June 3, 2012. Nikkei asked 21 prefectures with favorable geothermal resources for their views on development. Twelve of the prefectures agreed with the idea of pursuing geothermal development pro-actively, while 9 others were more cautious and indicated that "consent of the affected localities (地元) is a pre-condition".
Reality comes crashing down with reports today (June 5) that the Fukushima headline project is now stalled. The companies began to approach local residents in April, and "met with opposition from hot spring resort operators who are worried about how the development could affect spring water". Apparently the nuclear accident, fear of power shortages, loss of tourists to Fukushima over the past year, and everything else, is not enough to shift long held views. The pace of change in Japan is slow. Very slow.
It would be nice if this were not the end of the story, and if something (other than massive pay-offs) would shift the opposition. We shall see.