The Hacchobaru
geothermal plant in
Kyushu, Japan — ESI-AFRICA.COM — 01 December 2010 – Although both Japan and the American state of California have long used geothermal energy on a small scale, today its appeal to policy makers and investors is growing.

Green-energy ventures are sinking millions into exploiting the vast reservoirs of steam and heat energy that lie beneath the earth’s surface. The benefits are clear: The energy is clean and readily available. Indeed, it’s literally just boiling in the ground below us. And it could provide energy for millions.

California has the largest capacity of geothermal energy in the United States, but only 5% of the state’s electricity production comes from that source. According to the California Energy Commission, the state now has 43 operating geothermal power plants with an installed capacity of nearly 1800MW. But that could be doubled, or even tripled, to a whopping 4 800MW of power.

Japan, on the other hand, has exploited even less of its potential geothermal resources. Considered to have the third-largest capacity in the world (behind the United States and Indonesia), only .03% of its energy comes from that source.

The problem, said Atsushi Ikeda, general manager of Hacchobaru, the largest geothermal plant in Japan, is threefold: cost, aesthetics and public relations concerns about earthquakes and sustainability.

It takes billions, of dollars to build a geothermal plant “’ the Hacchobaru plant cost US$3.7 billion R26 billion) to build. And the situation is similar in California. The cost of drilling down to potential reservoirs can be astronomical.

The other problem in both countries is the location of the sources. Most geothermal reservoirs are in beautiful, scenic and mountainous terrain, which are often also national parks. And national parks are off limits when it comes to creating new power stations.

But some of the biggest impediments are the people who would have to live near the power station. They fear the possibility that geothermal plants could trigger earthquakes, and that they are using up their water.

Analysts expect that despite these drawbacks, geothermal will prevail. U.S. Geothermal Energy Association president Karl Gawell told that the geothermal
industry is expected to experience a strong rebound in 2011 because of stimulus funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, said Gawell. “We are now projecting that there will be between 500 and 700MWof new geothermal power projects in the drilling construction phase in the coming year,” Gawell said.