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Japanese bathing culture and geothermal development

Onsen in Hakone, Japan (source: flickr/ kenleewrites, creative commons)
Alexander Richter 8 Apr 2012

Iceland proves that a geothermal bathing culture and geothermal power development can co-exist and that geothermal development in Japan does not need to dry out onsens.

It is no news to anyone having been to Japan, that there is a thriving bathing culture in the country and this paired with strong traditions. Bathing in those “onsen”, or hot springs, is very popular.

So it may not be surprising that onsen owners have a strong voice when it comes to concerns about geothermal development. A recent article in The Economist touches upon this subject. The reason for concern is simple, onsen owners fear that geothermal development for power generation could dry out the hot aquifers that fuel the hot springs.

But with the tremendous energy demand of the country, following last year’s tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima and the move away from nuclear power, geothermal as a sensible energy choice is now harder to argue.

Japanese turbine producers Toshiba, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Fuji Electric very much control more than half of the global market for geothermal turbines, but at the same time Japan only has a geothermal power generation capacity of about 540 MW. With the belief of a geothermal power generation potential of about 20,000 MW, geothermal is a valid option to fill the nuclear power gap.

While it is hard to convince onsen owners of sensible development not threatening their operations, the concern remains. So it might not be surprising that Japanese advocates for geothermal look at other countries that have shown that geothermal development and a geothermal bathing culture can coexist.

So in a recent statement by the Icelandic Ambassador to Japan, he points out the example of the “Blue Lagoon” in Iceland, as likely being the biggest onsen in the world. The geothermal field there not only fuels the spa but also a geothermal power and heat plant. .. maybe as a side note one can say that the plant existed first, while the initial “pond” or pool was an environmental accident. Today the Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s largest tourist attraction attracting nearly double the Icelandic population in visitors.

Source: Economist