10 October 2018
New Zealand has long been a leader in renewable energy innovation, especially when it comes to geothermal energy, and there is a lot that other nations, particularly Japan, can gain from partnering with New Zealand to harness the power of geothermal resources.
Opposite ends of the scale
Global investment in renewable energy has made incredible progress in recent years as clean energy becomes more affordable and more countries work harder to become less reliant on fossil fuels.
According to the United Nations (UN) “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2018” report, last year was the eighth year in a row that global investment in renewables exceeded US$200 billion. Due to this concentrated and consistent investment, electricity generated worldwide through renewable sources grew from 5 percent to 12 percent in just over a decade.
While the move to renewable has been slow for Japan, there are encouraging signs with the government pledging to reduce the country’s dependency on nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
When it comes to geothermal energy, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise Tokyo’s Business Development Manager Yoshifumi Imamura says that New Zealand offers advanced technology and expertise. The main use of geothermal energy in New Zealand is for generating electricity and it is one of the cheapest ways for the country to do so. Geothermal energy provides 22 percent of New Zealand’s entire primary energy supply.
Conversely, geothermal energy is still a largely untapped resource in Japan, despite it having one of the world’s largest geothermal reserves. Geothermal energy accounts for less than 1 percent of Japan’s primary energy sources, although more efforts are currently being made to boost the use of geothermal energy in order to help meet the government’s goal of tripling its geothermal output by 2030.
In comparison, a large amount of New Zealand’s total primary energy (energy that comes from natural resources) is renewable. Electricity in New Zealand also comes from more than 80 percent renewable sources and it is one of the top countries in the OECD for the amount of primary energy that comes from renewable resources.
Why New Zealand?
New Zealand’s commitment to harnessing geothermal energy stems from as far back as 60 years when in 1958 a geothermal plant was opened in Wairakei. At that time, it was only the second-ever commercial geothermal plant in the world, and the first to utilise flash steam from geothermal water as an energy source to generate electricity. Since then, several more geothermal plants have successfully opened around the country.
Fast forward to 2017 and New Zealand continues to push renewable energy boundaries, with the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing an ambitious plan to transition New Zealand to an electric grid powered solely by renewables by 2035. This goal would be difficult to achieve without geothermal energy. The current government is also aiming for New Zealand to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Imamura says that while Japan focused on building up its nuclear energy capacity, New Zealand shot ahead in terms of geothermal energy output. But, the effects of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku - after which all nuclear power plants were closed down and only a small handful have reopened - show the shortcomings of relying too much on nuclear power.
“Intellectual knowledge - technical and social - to ensure renewable energy is constructed and managed in such a way which is beneficial to all parts of society,” Jeremy O’Brien, Seequent Geothermal Business Manager."
Japan needs stable and reliable energy sources and it makes more sense for the country to make the most out of what is already available in the country, rather than continue to import energy sources like it does currently, Imamura says.
He says the biggest opportunities for Japan in working with New Zealand are in knowledge sharing and drilling technology, particularly sub-surface analysis.
For example, Christchurch-based company Seequent designs and develops 3D geological modelling software for a range of purposes including geothermal energy. It is known for its Leapfrog software, which was first used in the mining industry about 15 years ago to provide insight into geological data, allowing scientists and executives to get more insight into environmental issues and risk assessment. Since then, the technology has been applied successfully to geothermal energy as well as other industries all around the world.
Imamura says there needs to be a greater understanding in Japan about the depth of New Zealand expertise in geothermal energy. The positive thing is that there are already partnerships underway and he expects this to increase over time as Japan works towards its geothermal energy goals.
In 2015 the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals Corporation (JOGMEC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with New Zealand Crown Research Institute, GNS Science, to work together to improve and promote geothermal development. This has led to regular market visits and workshops and in September 2018, Seequent and the University of Auckland held a geothermal engineering course for Japanese engineers.
Seequent’s Geothermal Business Manager Jeremy O’Brien says modern software is giving Japanese geothermal companies better clarity around the nature of their geothermal systems for energy development. Leapfrog is used to better understand and communicate risk and decision making in projects where decisions worth millions of dollars need to be made.
“Having an integrated platform that subsurface professionals can make decisions from is important as all the different data types and disciplines can interact, so the most robust decisions are made,” O’Brien says.
The software has also been used in geothermal developments to assess the potential for expansion developments or ensuring the longevity of current developments.
O’Brien says New Zealand and Japan share many similar values and working together would greatly benefit both countries.
“Partnering means together we can make the most of both our countries’ great technologies and intellectual knowledge - technical and social - to ensure renewable energy is constructed and managed in such a way which is beneficial to all parts of society.”
Earlier this year, Japanese construction company Obayashi Corporation and Maori-owned electricity generator Tuaropaki Trust announced a pilot project to produce hydrogen using geothermal energy. Obayashi President Toru Shiraishi said at the time of the announcement that the partnership was aligned with the company’s medium-to-long term environmental vision and its commitment to sustainability through reducing carbon emissions.
A time for change
Despite Japan’s slow uptake of renewable energy in the past, the time (and need) for change is here and now. Interest in using geothermal energy in Japan is picking up and extensive expertise from New Zealand organisations will surely help Japan to realise the true potential of its natural geothermal resources.