Last Updated: Thu Jul 07, 2011 10:48 am (KSA) 07:48 am (GMT)

Mary E. Stonaker: What is stopping the world from tapping into limitless resource of ‘perfect energy’?

An employee of PT Indonesia Power walks near a thermal pipe at Kamojang geothermal power plant near Garut, in Indonesia’s West Java province. (File Photo)
An employee of PT Indonesia Power walks near a thermal pipe at Kamojang geothermal power plant near Garut, in Indonesia’s West Java province. (File Photo)

Closures of nuclear power plants in Japan followed the devastation at Fukushima, still an on-going containment operation after the natural disaster in March shook the foundation of the nuclear plant. While Japanese officials are conducting stress tests for all plants, there is speculation about the real possibility of restarting nuclear energy production to deal with electricity shortages.

Nuclear plants contributed 29 percent of Japan’s 2010 consumption and 14 percent worldwide.

To cope with such a sudden and steep electricity shortages, the government in Japan instituted “rolling black-outs” or scheduled electricity restrictions to limit consumer use and prevent full meltdown of an over-demanded electricity grid. The Japanese need an additional clean energy industry on top of its widespread nuclear plants.

In the US, rising oil prices and the recent release of 60 million barrels per day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve have sent officials awry searching for a cleaner, safer alternative than oil and nuclear power.

Indonesia was once an oil exporter and yet dwindling reserves and increasing demand at home forced Indonesia into existence as an importer. With over 17,000 islands spread across approximately 735,000 sq. miles, the most common mode of transport usually includes some form of a dirty fuel, be it gasoline or coal.

With the above realities in mind, Japan, the US and Indonesia are seriously investigating their geothermal options.

Geothermal energy is naturally occurring heat and steam from under the earth’s surface, which is harnessed through a steam turbine. If liquids are missing from the geothermal heat site, injected liquids can stimulate the steam needed to move the turbines.

Emissions from geothermal plants are one-eighth that of coal-fired power plants, the latter of which drove China to surpass the US as the largest consumer of energy worldwide.

In Japan, geothermal energy currently comprises 0.3 percent of its energy basket. It is the seismic activity of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” which allows scientists to access that precious heat.

In the US, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $70 million grant to increase technology and utilization of geothermal energy following President Obama’s aim to produce 80 percent of American electricity from clean fuels by 2035.

The recent release of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an emergency “fund” of oil, seemingly contradicts this goal of Obama’s. Oil prices had already started to dip by the time the SPR announcement and release was made.

Allowing market forces to dictate the price of gas at the pump or cooking oil under the stove would eventually drive down consumption rates in the world’s second largest energy consumer after China but the first in oil consumption.

By strategically playing with the market, everyday Americans will not learn the self-control needed to reign in consumption.

Another Pacific country, Indonesia, is estimated to contain nearly 40 percent of the world’s access to geothermal beds and yet utilizes a very small proportion of that.

Coal accounted for 29 percent of Indonesia’s consumption, following oil at 44 percent. The abundance of coal maintains a great export market for this Pacific country though it has its eyes on expanding its geothermal utilization.

Geography will most likely prove the biggest hurdle for Indonesia’s successful development of a clean, geothermal industry. Accessing remote areas and constructing the networks to transport electricity may prove entirely discouraging to the development of this industry without further incentives.

Environmentalists would be satisfied to learn that long-term effects, on our surroundings, of harnessing geothermal energy are minimal.

So what is stopping the world from tapping into this seemingly perfect resource?

Cost. While the “fuel” is virtually free after the plant is up and running, the start-up costs are prohibitive. It has been reported that one megawatt of geothermal energy costs about $3.5 million start-up investment. Coal’s start-up cost is $1.2 million per megawatt of energy produced.

While the US’s DOE grant will offset some of the barriers to entry in geothermal technologies, more work needs to go into implementing clean burning mass transit vehicles, such as buses and trains. Establishing clean, affordable transit networks in this country where commutes can top 2 hours one way is essential to making a dent in this consumption mentality.

Often clean energies have high barriers to enter, whether it be the corporate-level $7 million cost of assessing a geothermal reserve to the household cost of solar panels. It is important, especially in this shaky economic time, that safe, renewable energy fields be developed further in Japan, Indonesia and the US to create long-term jobs and build a more sustainable future for our children.

(Mary E. Stonaker is an independent scholar, most recently with the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She can be contacted at marystonaker@gmail.com)

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