Tech Insights

US Partners With Geothermal-rich Japan on Renewables Research

April 29, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

Energy officials in the United States and Japan recently penned a commitment to work together on geothermal energy research and development activities. 

At a Group of Seven (G7) event earlier this month, officials representing the United States and Japan signed an agreement to collaborate on renewable energy research and development (R&D) and knowledge-sharing to scale up renewable geothermal energy adoption. 


Jennifer Granholm and Japan Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Japan Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura inked an agreement to expand the countries’ joint efforts in geothermal energy. Image used courtesy of the DOE


Japan’s prominent hot springs are essentially world-leading geothermal resource hubs. But they remain largely untapped due to resort owners’ long-standing opposition to new power facilities. The government is easing regulations to fast-track plant development on national land, aiming to triple its geothermal capacity by 2030. 

Meanwhile: The U.S., already a global leader in geothermal capacity, aims to expand its position and further support advanced technology development. Both countries are interested in exporting geothermal technologies, the Associated Press reported. 

According to recent statistics from the International Renewable Energy Agency, the world’s total geothermal energy capacity has steadily grown from 10.4 gigawatts (GW) in 2012 to 15.6 GW in 2021. The U.S. claims 3.9 GW of that total. Japan accounts for only 481 megawatts (MW)—far behind other Asian countries, such as Indonesia (2.2 GW) and the Philippines (1.9 GW). 


Sideline Deal 

United States Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Japan Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura inked a geothermal-focused memorandum of commitment (MOC) during the two-day G7 Meeting on Climate, Energy, and Environment in Sapporo, capital of northern Japan’s island of Hokkaido. Per its name, the G7 event included participation from other alliance members, including Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. 

The Associated Press first reported on the MOC, signed on the sidelines of the meeting, in which both parties agreed to work together on R&D and information-exchange activities. Each partner will cover the costs of such projects, though the agreement didn’t offer specific expenditures. 

Outside of AP’s reporting, details are sparse on what exactly the MOC entails, as it’s missing from the meeting’s outcome documents. Geothermal is mentioned once in the 36-page communiqué signed by G7 countries, which promises to accelerate the deployment of renewables such as land-based and offshore wind, hydropower, solar, sustainable biomass, biomethane, and tidal technologies. 

EE Power asked the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide clarity on the contents of the MOC but had yet to hear back before publication. 

In any case, the deal is newsworthy as geothermal has the potential to support both countries’ renewable energy transition strategies. 


Geothermal Potential in America and Japan

Geothermal provides low cost and continuous capacity, and it’s dispatchable to cover the intermittency of solar and wind power—all factors making it attractive for the renewable energy transition. The main types of geothermal energy systems are direct-use and district heating systems, power plants (typically located within a few miles of the earth’s surface), and heat pumps. Electricity generation requires water or steam at 300 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). 


three primary types of geothermal power plants

The three primary types of geothermal power plants. Image used courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy


According to the Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security, around 80% of Japan’s geothermal resources exist inside natural parks, which until recently had been heavily regulated. Eased restrictions have increased the potential area for geothermal development from 25% to 60% nationwide. 

Still, widespread opposition from hot springs resort owners continues to limit the development of geothermal plants in some of the most resource-heavy areas of the country. 


 Japan’s geothermal power plants 

A map of Japan’s geothermal power plants. Image used courtesy of the Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security


Meanwhile: The U.S. has been scaling up its use of geothermal energy for several years, now claiming 25% of global capacity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), geothermal power plants in seven states generated 17,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) in 2022. California and Nevada led the pack, with 69.5% and 24.2% shares of the country’s geothermal production, respectively. Inside those states, geothermal accounts for 5.8% and 9.6% of total electricity generation. 

Overall, geothermal plants account for less than 1% of America’s total utility-scale electricity production. 


Ormat’s McGinness Hills geothermal power complex

Opened in 2012, Ormat’s McGinness Hills geothermal power complex in Nevada uses air-cooled binary systems and offers 143 MW of generating capacity. Image used courtesy of Ormat


The federal government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand geothermal systems and develop new technologies. The DOE recently announced it would provide up to $74 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-earmarked funds for a handful of pilot demonstrations testing enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). And in March, the DOE selected the first two federal sites—New York-based Military Academy at West Point and Michigan’s Army Garrison Detroit Arsenal—to receive technical assistance for adopting geothermal heating and cooling systems.

A recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory analysis found that the U.S. could reduce EGS costs by 90% to $45 per MWh by 2035 and increase domestic geothermal capacity to 90 GW by 2050. 


California and Nevada lead the nation in geothermal electricity generation

California and Nevada lead the nation in geothermal electricity generation. Image used courtesy of the EIA


Global Geothermal Deployment

Though the details of the MOC haven’t been shared, it’s nothing new for Japan and the U.S. to work together on carbon capture, nuclear, and other renewable projects. At the G7 Meeting on Climate, Energy, and Environment earlier this month, the pair and other G7 members reaffirmed their plans to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, aiming to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius (35.7 °F). 

Tapping geothermal resources for renewable energy has found popularity in other countries looking to reduce their carbon emissions, including Iceland (where 756 MW of capacity satisfies 90% of heating demand), Indonesia (with 2.2 GW of capacity), the Philippines (1.9 GW), and Turkey (1.6 GW).