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Barun Roy: The geothermal alternative

The search for a potential resource of energy that exists in the heat of the Earth is now gathering pace

Barun Roy 

Barun Roy

While wind and solar power remain the principal force driving the world's move towards alternative energy, the search is now also beginning to gather pace for another potential resource that has been little pursued so far: energy that exists in the heat of the Earth and, once on tap, is cheap, reliable, virtually endless, and available throughout the year. The technology is there, the need is growing, and nations must act more aggressively to reduce the danger to the environment from fossil fuels. All this forebodes a better future for geothermal energy, and, significantly, Asia will be playing a leading role in its revival.

The biggest new push comes from Indonesia, which has cleared the ground for what could be the world's biggest geothermal energy plant so far. At Sarulla in North Sumatra, work will soon begin on a $1.6-billion project with an installed capacity of 330 megawatts (Mw) as part of the government's plan to derive 12 per cent of the country's energy mix from geothermal power by 2025. Currently, geothermal power represents only about two per cent, in spite of Indonesia being the world's third-largest geothermal producer (1,197 Mw) after the US (3,086 Mw) and the Philippines (1,904 Mw).

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country and is Southeast Asia's biggest economy. Yet, it's one of the region's most poorly electrified countries, dependent on imported oil. Currently, the country produces about 45.1 per cent of its energy from oil, 26.7 per cent from natural gas, 24 per cent from coal, and only 2.3 per cent from hydroelectricity. So far, renewables have been restricted to mini-hydro plants and small wind turbines. But there's a growing realisation that massive hydropower and geothermal projects are badly needed to tackle the problems of a country that sprawls over 17,000 islands, of which more than 6,000 are inhabited.

Thanks to its volcanic geology, Indonesia is said to have 40 per cent (around 28,000 Mw) of the world's proven geothermal potential. By 2025, it aims to produce more than 9,000 Mw from its six fields in Java, North Sumatra, and North Sulawesi, overtaking the US as the world's top geothermal energy producer. The government is now ready to offer tax incentives to renewable energy developers, set appropriate pricing policies, and address environmental concerns since 80 per cent of the country's geothermal resources are located in conserved forest areas.

The financing of the Sarulla project has been heralded as a breakthrough and should serve as an example to other countries with geothermal potential in developing this hitherto underexploited sector. Participating in the endeavour are the Asian Development Bank and Japan Bank for International Cooperation, alongside a number of private banks. This partnership should be a great fillip to the project's sponsors: Itochu Corporation, Kyushu Electric Power Co, Medco Power Indonesia, and Ormet International, a unit of Ormet Technologies.

The Philippines is the region's biggest exploiter of geothermal energy and its six geothermal fields in Luzon, Leyte, Negros, and Mindanao account for 22 per cent of the country's electricity production. It still has a potential of 2,600 Mw of untapped geothermal energy and seeks to exploit at least half of it in the next 10 years. China has not been in a hurry so far to develop its huge geothermal potential but it now plans to use geothermal energy for district heating and hopes to reach 500 million square metres of heat supply and 100 Mw of installed capacity by 2015.

A major new push for geothermal energy is also coming from Japan, where the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has swung public towards renewable resources. The government is now encouraging companies to build mid-sized geothermal plants to serve small urban and rural communities. The country's first new geothermal plant in 15 years - the last one was built in 1999 on Hachijo Island, south of Tokyo - is due to open this month in Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu, a region known for its natural hot springs and volcanic activity. The developer, Chuo Electric Power, has set up a dedicated geothermal unit and intends to build five more plants in the next five years.

Altogether, 60 potential geothermal sites are being eyed currently, mostly utilising heat from hot springs. Japan, one of the world's most seismically active nations, is said to have a total geothermal potential of 19.14 Gw and should be able to produce as much as 23 million kW of energy out of it. While the total net output from all its geothermal plants as of now is 535.25 Mw, making it the sixth-largest geothermal energy producer in the world, the picture could change in the coming years as attention turns increasingly to bigger-size plants. A consortium of 10 companies, including Idemitsu Kosan and Impex, proposes to build what could be Japan's largest geothermal plant in Fukushima prefecture with a 270 Mw output capacity. It could be in operation by the early 2020s.

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First Published: Wed, July 09 2014. 21:48 IST