Thousands of natural hot springs (or onsen) dot Japan’s countryside, providing a haven for relaxation and contemplation for millions of people. For thousands of years, they have been an important part of the historical and social fabric of the country, and they are represented everywhere from famous ukioy-e woodblock prints from the 18th century to contemporary sitcoms.
Today, however, they have the potential to be an important part of the transformation of Japan’s energy sector, with a power output equivalent to 23 megawatts (MW) lying beneath the surface in the form of geothermal energy, the world’s third-largest store. The world’s installed capacity for geothermal power was 12.9 gigawatts (GW) in 2017, with a levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for recent projects ranging from USD 0.04 to around USD 0.13 per kilowatt-hour.
Geothermal power plants are not new to Japan. The first geothermal plant in the country opened in 1924 in Bepphu, with the steam also being used to heat houses and cook food in restaurants. However, it wasn’t until 1952 when Japan’s first commercial geothermal power station opened, in the city of Hachimantai in northern Japan. Built by Japan Metal & Chemicals and with turbines by Toshiba, the plant originally provided about 9.5 MW of power, about 40% of its output today, with the residual hot water used for agricultural applications.
Today, Toshiba is the world’s largest supplier of geothermal turbines, followed by Mitsubishi and Fuji, also Japanese companies. Japan is also one of the world’s largest developers of geothermal projects outside of the country. In Indonesia, Japanese companies are currently financing and building the Sarulla plant, whose output once completed will be 320 MW, the world’s largest. Japanese companies also support Kenya’s geothermal-powered energy transformation, providing turbines, supplying equipment, and constructing mega-projects like the 158 MW Olkaria V steam power plant in Naivasha.
But despite Japan’s technical and construction preeminence and its significant energy potential, there are only around twenty geothermal plants in Japan, with a total output capacity of around 535 MW, only 0.3% of the country’s total electricity generation. High upfront costs and rigorous regulatory processes are some of the reasons that the Wasabizawa plant, currently under construction in Akita prefecture, is the first large-scale geothermal project in about 20 years.
However, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster the Japanese government introduced new policies to accelerate geothermal power plant deployment. These included streamlined procedures for the approval of projects in national parks and, crucially, a new higher feed-in tariff (FIT) for small geothermal plants to more than one-and-a-half times of that of larger facilities. This made it profitable to build plants with an output below 7.5 MW, which do not require environmental impact assessments and can be built in around half the time of larger plants.
These policies have not been unopposed. More than half of the geothermal sources are located around national parks or near the country’s 27,000 thermal springs that onsen rely on for their hot water supply. Critics believe that geothermal projects will adversely affect water supply or quality, or that the plants will have a detrimental impact on hot spring resorts or national parks.
As a result, an important role of the small-scale geothermal plants built since 2012 has been to work closely with onsen operators, hotels and inns to prove that small-scale geothermal power generation can coexist with tourism facilities, without negatively impacting Japan’s natural beauty.
The first geothermal plant established within a national park was in the Tsuchiyu Onsen hot spring resort in Fukushima city. The plant uses binary cycle geothermal power generation, which relies on working fluids with a boiling point lower than water, such as ammonia or certain hydrocarbons, to drive the turbines. Small-scale binary plants are compact and can take as little as one year to build, and, with a wide distribution of the required low-medium temperature geothermal resources across the country, there is huge potential for this power source to grow in Japan.
The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and related nuclear accident, had a devastating effect on Fukushima, and on Tsuchiyu Onsen. Aside from the catastrophic impact of the events themselves, the onsen saw a sharp drop in tourists and subsequent closure of a number of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns). Undaunted, local residents determined to rebuild the town, forming the TsuchiyuOnsen Town Reconstruction and Revitalization Council to lead the creation of an eco-town relying on locally-available clean energy.
According to Katsuichi Kato, President of Genki Up Tsuchiyu, the company in charge of the geothermal power plant, the town started virtually from scratch, without any local expertise in binary power generation, and with substantial administrative and financial hurdles to overcome. Despite this, the town remained resilient and all stakeholders—from ryokan and onsen tourism operators to those in charge of the power plant—worked together to bring about a “miracle”. As Mr. Kato put it, “When forced to stand at the edge of a cliff, unprecedented wisdom and power can arise, but you must have courage, determination and responsibility to make your vision of the future happen.”
For Mr. Kato, the success of the project hinged on the fact that the council developed the plant not solely as a profitmaking venture, ceding control and operations to outside experts, but as a revitalization exercise for the whole town. This, he believes, imbued it with the sense of purpose and cooperation necessary to rally the spirit of the town to work together to develop a model for an eco-friendly town where benefits are shared.
And benefits there are. According to Mr. Kato, the geothermal plant has been a boon to tourism, adding to the number of people coming to visit the onsen for recreation or health purposes. This is supported by others, including Mr. Kazuhiro Watanabe, owner of the Sansuiso Tsuchiyu Spa, who points out that thousands of people come from all over Japan each year to learn about how the binary plant does not affect the onsen water, bringing a new source of income. As an added bonus, the warm waste water from the binary power plant is supporting aquaculture of giant river prawn. The prawn are served in local hotels and restaurants, and can also be fished by tourists.
Other projects have emulated the success of the Tsuchiyu Onsen geothermal plant. For example, in 2014 the 2 MW Kumamoto geothermal plant, built by Chuo Electric Power Company, was developed in close cooperation with a local hot spring company Waita-kai and the Oguni resort. In March of this year, oil company Idemitsu Kosan launched a 5MW binary facility in Oita prefecture. A 7 MW plant in Iwate prefecture is expected to begin operation later this year, and is being developed by a venture that includes Japan Metal & Chemicals. Tokyo-based financial services company Orix plans to develop up to 15 small-scale facilities throughout the country, starting with a 4.4 MW plant on the island of Hachijojima in 2022.
Another innovative new approach is a small 70 KW power generator the size of a small freight container that uses hot springs already tapped for hotels and inns to produce power. Developed by Kobe Steel, the system is being introduced in hotels such as the Yufuin Spa in Yufuincho, who can expect to recoup their initial investment in only four years under the government FIT.
Strengthened research and development, especially with regards to binary and other low temperature systems, can further increase efficiency and reduce the environmental footprint of geothermal plants, while actively engaging onsen and tourism operators as partners in plant development will ensure mutual benefits while reducing negative perceptions.
For Japan, already a global leader in renewable energy technologies and development, that is looking to reduce the risks associated with nuclear energy and the costs and air pollution associated with fossil fuel imports, domestic geothermal energy development can be a win-win scenario. Japan also has a lot to share in terms of its experience and innovations, and can take advantage of global platforms like the International Renewable Energy Agency and the Global Geothermal Alliance to continue to help other countries develop their own geothermal capacity.
Fossil fuel consumption subsidies bounced back strongly in 2018
Authors: Wataru Matsumura and Zakia Adam*
Higher average oil prices in 2018 pushed up the value of global fossil fuel consumption subsidies back up toward levels last seen in 2014, underscoring the incomplete nature of the pricing reforms undertaken in recent years, according to new data from the IEA.
The new data for 2018 show a one-third increase in the estimated value of these subsidies, to more than $400 billion. The estimates for oil, gas and fossil-fuelled electricity have all increased significantly, reflecting the higher price for fuels (which, in the presence of an artificially low end-user price, increases the estimated value of the subsidy). The continued prevalence of these subsidies – more than double the estimated subsidies to renewables – greatly complicates the task of achieving an early peak in global emissions.
The 2018 data sees oil return as the most heavily subsidised energy carrier, expanding its share in the total to more than 40%. In 2016, electricity briefly became the sector with the largest subsidy bill.
Fossil fuel consumption subsidies are in place across a range of countries. These subsidies lower the price of fossil fuels, or of fossil-fuel based electricity, to end-consumers, often as a way of pursuing social policy objectives.
There can be good reasons for governments to make energy more affordable, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable groups. But many subsidies are poorly targeted, disproportionally benefiting wealthier segments of the population that use much more of the subsidised fuel. Such untargeted subsidy policies encourage wasteful consumption, pushing up emissions and straining government budgets.
Recent years have seen multiple examples of pricing reforms, underpinned by lower oil prices that created a political opportunity among oil-importing countries and a fiscal necessity among exporters. Reforms typically focused on gasoline and diesel pricing, and in some cases also on LPG, natural gas and electricity tariffs. IEA price data (shown below for gasoline) show clearly the wide range of end-user prices across countries – the lowest prices found among countries that subsidise consumption.
The nature of pricing reforms undertaken in recent years differ depending on the sector and on national circumstances, but fall into three broad categories:
- Complete price liberalisation, typically for the main transport fuels, as for example in India, Mexico, Thailand and Tunisia.
- Introduction of a mechanism for regular, automatic adjustment of prices in line with international prices. China has such a system for oil prices, and similar mechanisms were also introduced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Cote d’Ivoire and Oman.
- A schedule of reforms to regulated prices, often with a view to aligning them with cost-recovery or market-based prices. This was the most common type of reform in the Middle East and North Africa, where prices for oil products, natural gas, water and/or electricity were raised in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. There were also increases in regulated electricity prices elsewhere, as for example in Indonesia.
These price reforms were often accompanied by the introduction of more targeted programmes of support for vulnerable groups. They also brought significant financial savings to the governments concerned, allowing these resources to be deployed to other development or policy priorities.
However, in 2018 the oil price trended higher for much of the year before falling back in the last quarter. This became a major source of strain in countries where consumers were newly exposed to rising retail prices, particularly where national currencies were losing value against the US dollar at the same time.
The rise in retail prices created broader pressure to revisit some of the pricing reforms.
- Some countries with fully liberalised prices sought ways to dampen the effects on consumers, for example via reductions in other taxes and duties (as in India) or via implicit price interventions through state-owned oil and gas companies.
- Upward fuel price adjustments were postponed in some countries that had committed to follow international price movements but retained some administrative discretion over the level and timing of any changes. This was the case in Indonesia, Malaysia and Jordan.
- In fully regulated price environments, the reform schedule was in some cases pushed back or watered down.
Shielding consumers from short-term changes in international fossil fuel prices comes at a fiscal and environmental cost. It also diminishes the potential for higher prices to curb demand and bring the market into balance.
The different reform pathways since 2015 can be separated out into the various components of the change in subsidy values. Pricing reforms over the last three years brought substantial dividends, estimated at 36 billion dollars in total. This represents either a direct easing of the strain on public finances (via reduced public expenditures on subsidies) or additional revenue accruing to resource-rich countries (by reclaiming more of the value that was previously being foregone because of under-pricing).
Notable reductions in oil-related consumption subsidies over this period were observed in many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as in Colombia and Pakistan. Ukraine saw the largest fall in subsidies for natural gas. Subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity consumption were substantially lower over this period in Russia, Argentina, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and in parts of the Middle East.
However, these falls were outweighed by two other factors: a widening gap between prevailing prices and market-based pricing in many countries (exacerbated in some cases by depreciation of the domestic currencies against the dollar); and increased consumption of subsidised energy.
The largest increases in consumption subsidies for oil products were in Indonesia, Iran, Egypt and Venezuela. In the latter case, a collapsing currency meant that gasoline and diesel sales (where available) were essentially free in dollar terms. Iran also saw the largest increase in natural gas subsidies, and – together with Venezuela, Mexico, Egypt and China – was among those seeing the most significant increase in subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity.
Committing political capital to subsidy reform remains tough, especially if international prices are volatile. But phasing out fossil fuel consumption subsidies remains a pillar of sound energy policy. Especially when part of a broader suite of supportive policy measures, pricing reform is pivotal for a more robust, secure and sustainable energy sector over the long term.
Industries and households are more likely to opt for energy-efficient equipment, vehicles and appliances. Investors in a range of energy technologies, especially clean technologies, see a better case to commit their capital. That is why the IEA continues to be a strong supporter of efforts to phase out inefficient fossil fuel consumption subsidies.
*Zakia Adam, WEO Energy Analyst
France Shows How Energy and Society Are Intertwined
What should be asked about energy is what Plato’s The Republic through Socrates asked: “What is justice?” If energy has a moral, economic, environmental, and life-saving component then energy in all forms is certainly just.
This is where facts need to be realized, and find out if a carbon-free society run on renewable energy is even remotely possible? Over 6,000 everyday, products come from a barrel of crude oil.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) released The World Energy Outlook 2018 – the self-proclaimed “gold standard of energy analysis,’ – admitting a damning conclusion. That amidst the overwhelming amount of graphs, charts, tables and prognostications, “the percentage of total global primary energy demand provided by wind and solar is 1.1%.”
The world runs off fossil fuels, and no time in the coming decades will clean energy, a carbon-free society, or zero emission energy to electricity or electric vehicles sustain trillion-dollar economies. More alarming is the world’s largest authoritarian, communist government, China, controls 90 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals – “a group of 17 elements with similar qualities that are used in electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.”
Nations, companies, and individuals care about national security, their own “self-interest rightly understood” while meeting the basics of food, clothing and shelter (Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs) – exactly what fossil fuels provide – on an affordable, scalable, reliable and flexible basis for energy to be delivered to billions of people starving for their modern way of life to continue.
We are witnessing an energy clash globally, and nowhere was that better defined than France’s “Yellow Vest” protests that began in late November 2018 and are ongoing. These protests brought a convergence of domestic concerns triggered over a proposed fuel tax hike that hit lower educated, ordinary voters more than educated urban dwellers.
France’s, politicized carbon tax – the theory goes – should be an efficient way to disseminate the monetary consequences of carbon onto the French and global economies; however, that isn’t necessarily the case. This regulatory heavy-handedness by the state has resulted in:
“Decades of global conferences, forest of reports, dire television documentaries, celebrity appeals, school-curriculum overhauls and media bludgeoning,” without examining the facts.
France is a good test case for energy policy moving forward, because if humanity overwhelmingly using fossil fuels are killing plants, animals, the ecosphere and crushing human life than a tax is fair, just and equitable, correct? But that isn’t the case. The earth and human progress have never done better in recorded history. Economic growth and technology are saving us from such historic plagues like poverty, illness and deforestation.
President Emmanuel Macron and the previous administration of Francois Hollande wrongly targeted emissions unlike Germany that is a high-emitter off increased coal-fired power plant use backing up renewables. Macron’s carbon tax went after Yellow Vest protesters who are vehicle reliant. Since France heavily relies on clean, carbon-free nuclear power for their electricity, France is only“0.4% of global emissions.”
Macron is punishing French drivers via punitive tax hikes and it failed. Voters and everyday working citizens aren’t buying carbon taxes or anything that restricts energy and prosperity. Green piety in Washington State in the US was also rejected the same way it was in France.
Cutting transportation emissions are extremely hard to eliminate when the entire supply and value chain of the tailpipe’s emissions are factored into the equation. It’s why electric vehicles (EVs) aren’t as environmentally friendly as advertised.
Carbon taxation like renewables and carbon-free societies have become buzzwords that reveals the disconnect over the properties that constitute a modern society and an “aloof political class that never reasons with their concern over emissions.”
Achieving energy parity at low costs will never be accomplished by imposing solutions that consist of using expensive, unreliable, intermittent renewable energy. Then believing these policy solutions will have zero impact on economic growth and overall wellness. The impact is heavier use of coal.
The European Union (EU) has: “Eleven countries still planning to use coal-fired power in 2030 (in order of increasing installed capacity) are: Spain, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany and Poland.”
All EU countries have been given energy transition funds to exit coal by 2030, but only France is able to withstand the use of coal through heavier use of nuclear. Geopolitical reasons are another reason you will find a transition to the clean energy economy in the coming decades, because of US shale oil and natural gas production – fracking is changing the world.
In general, US shale exploration and production (E&P) is booming like never before. As of December 2018 the United States briefly became a net exporter of crude oil and refined products; and unless voters ban fossil fuel production the US will become energy independent.
The US Department of Interior’s, United States Geological Survey announced in December 2018: “The largest estimate of technically, recoverable continuous oil that USGS has ever assessed in the United States. The Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin portion of Texas’ Permian Basin province contains an estimated mean of 20 billion barrels of oil.”
Whereas California doesn’t exploit their Monterrey Shale resources – considered one of the largest shale deposits in the US and possibly the world – since California policymakers are only pursuing clean energy resources. Why does fossil fuel and renewable energy have to be politicized when they could work together? Texas and California should be pioneering world-class energy research together. Fossil fuel could pay for research and development to build better renewable energy, globally scalable storage systems and an electrical grid that is smart, reliable and have a 50-100 year shelf life.
An honest broker of information takes energy choices and consequences of say increasing fossil fuel use by burning copious amounts of coal that China, India, Poland, Australia and the United States are doing versus emission-heavy air that cause all sorts of lung and respiratory illnesses.
Energy and Geopolitics is Under Attack
Global warming. Climate change. Renewable energy. Carbon-free societies. All of these terms have gained status, as the balm to eliminate fossil fuels, which is supposedly causing anthropogenic, global warming. What should be noted however, is according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States National Climatic Data Center (NCDC):
1. The PRIMARY force is that the SUN heats the earth’s oceans and land,
2. Then, SECONDARILY, the earth’s oceans and land heats the atmosphere. The atmosphere is NOT heating the earth it’s the sun.
3. Consequently, after the above two, increasing air temperature then increases sea surface temperature.
Facts tell us the one constant on earth is that the climate is always changing. Facts also tell us that CO2 is statistically irrelevant, as a factor in determining the earth’s climate. Therefore, CO2 is a minor factor in weather determination.
Whether or not there is, or isn’t climate change, global warming, and who is, or isn’t to blame, here is why that sentiment is dangerous from noted climatologist, and true scientific consensus believer, Dr. Judith Curry:
“Climatology has become a political party with totalitarian tendencies. If you don’t support the UN consensus on human-caused global warming, if you express the slightest skepticism, you are a ‘climate-change denier,’ who must be banned from the scientific community.”
What’s alarming about Curry’s statements is the UN was created to keep another world war from breaking out while promoting integrated commerce, and human interaction instead of another global holocaust. Why the UN has gotten into climate research, and environmental, weather-interactions are grossly past its intended mandate.
Scientific research according to Karl Popper “should be based on skepticism, on the constant reconsideration of accepted ideas.”
When it comes to energy and climate we should be considering what promotes human longevity and flourishing. What makes energy and electricity affordable, scalable, abundant, reliable, and flexible? Now the global warming, climate change debate is only about made-for-profit power.
Renewables are sure-fire, taxpayer-funded, profit centers when:
“In 2016, renewables received 94 times more in U.S. federal subsidies than nuclear and 46 times more than fossil fuels per unit of energy generated.”
Weather and climate are under attack, but so is the science of energy, from believing a “Green New Deal” will work for labor to thinking all energy issues are solved from electricity. Electricity is a static proposition that needs to be generated from some source; whether oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar panels, wind turbines or damned water through turbines to produce energy to electricity.
But nothing energizes environmentalists and citizens like renewable energy. Every single place renewables have been implemented they are a disaster.
In Germany, Denmark, Spain, Britain, South Australia, Vermont, Minnesota, New Mexico (in the beginning stages of maligning fossil fuels), Arkansas, California, Austin, Texas, and Georgetown, Texas, solar and wind farms have been valiantly attempted, and failed every single time. Renewables will never work under current technological and scientific constraints; and energy battery storage systems only have 8-12 maximum capacity according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The science behind renewable energy also makes electricity more expensive. For example:
“Solar panels with storage deliver just 1.6 times as much energy as is invested as compared to the 75 times more energy delivered with nuclear.”
There is no battery revolution for energy storage systems, and renewables under current technological constraints. Economics factually show that renewables will always constrain electricity, causing price hikes and degrading infrastructure improvements. Only fossil fuels at this time have the science, engineering, technology, and economics that make sense for human flourishing and longevity.
Over six thousand products come from a barrel of crude oil. Meaning, the conversation should stop about de-carbonizing, searching for clean energy, and eliminating oil from our daily lives. There is positive correlation even causation between energy and environmentalism. Clean environments only happen, “as people consume higher levels of energy the overall environmental impact is overwhelmingly positive, not negative.”
Fossil fuels have been used safely for centuries, and billions have left poverty. Oil, natural gas, and coal reduce the amount of land needed for energy, compared to solar and wind farms. If the earth is warming:
“Then aerial fertilization by CO2 has increased food supplies by 25%, weather is less extreme in a warming world, and historically conflicts increase during periods of cooling, and decrease during warmer periods.”
Our growing understanding of energy, science, engineering, and markets yields important geopolitical lessons. The science, and use of natural gas, makes its conversion to liquid natural gas (LNG) more important to energy, geopolitics and diplomacy than anything outside of strong militaries. Natural gas is the soft power, weapon-of-choice for nation states like Russia.
Natural gas spending will jump five-fold in 2019, according to Wood Mackenzie. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says:“Natural gas demand to rise 10 percent over the next 5 years, and roughly 40 percent of that will come from China.”
The Trump administration is pushing for Eastern Mediterranean natural gas, and “sees the promotion of natural gas production and related infrastructure in the region as a key effort in tying countries together and promoting peace.” This continues “an Obama-era foreign policy objective.”
French, energy firm, Total, is partnering with Russia on a LNG project in the Arctic to protect French energy needs. Even smaller, geopolitical players like Mexico, are seeking ways to boost natural gas production 50 percent through government-owned, Petroleo Mexicanos (PEMEX).
Fossil fuels – particularly natural gas – will be the leader for decades ahead when it comes to soft power, national security and robust economic growth for mature and emerging markets. Political moves, similar to Michael Bloomberg donating $500 million to kill coal use in the US, could slow natural gas’ growth, but if they do, they will also devastate the country and its western allies geopolitically. China, Russia, India, Africa, Iran, and North Korea will never let a billionaire stop their economies or geopolitical power. Yes, energy and geopolitics is under attack from within, from national and from competing energy interests.
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