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Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008

Rich in geothermal fields? Then exploit them


Special to The Japan Times

SINGAPORE — In their quest for energy security, Indonesia and the Philippines are planning to develop nuclear power to buttress a key part of their electricity generating systems. This provides the near constant, or base load, electricity needed by industries and households. However, the possibility of accidents and deadly radioactive releases from nuclear power plants — particularly those in countries like the Indonesia and the Philippines, which are peppered with active volcanoes and subject to earthquakes and tsunami — worries neighboring nations in Southeast Asia as well as Australia.

Such plants would be sited on coastlines so they can draw water from the sea for cooling purposes. The problems even Japan, with its advanced technology and management skills, has encountered with the seismic safety of its nuclear power industry during major earthquakes in recent years has heightened this anxiety.

Yet the very basis for these safety concerns in Southeast Asia points to a solution. Instead of going nuclear with its risks, Indonesia and the Philippines could expand what they are already doing: tapping the virtually limitless heat from deep underground to power their economies. The two Southeast Asian countries are the world's biggest geothermal electricity producers, after the United States.

This form of renewable energy supplies just over 23 percent of the electricity generated in the Philippines and 5 percent in Indonesia. It has reliability advantages over solar and wind power, mainly because geothermal fields do not stop producing energy at night after the sun sets, or when the wind ceases to blow or gusts too hard.

Coming from the Earth's molten core and from the decay of naturally occurring elements such as uranium and thorium, the heat energy in the uppermost 10 km of the planet's crust is vast — 50,000 times greater than the energy content of all known oil and natural gas resources. Among countries with the richest geothermal resources are those that lie atop the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, a hot geologic zone that encircles the Pacific Ocean. They include the western U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Russia, Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and New Zealand.

On a worldwide basis, hydropower is by far the most important renewable energy source, accounting for 19 percent of global electricity production. Wind generates just one percent of world power. While both geothermal and solar energy each provide well under one percent, they have the potential to supply much more. Indonesia is the world's third biggest producer of geothermal electricity. Yet it supplies barely 1,000 megawatts of an estimated 27,000 MW potential from its geothermal resources, one of the world's largest.

It plans to develop new capacity of nearly 7,000 MW over the next decade, equivalent to 10 nuclear power plants and equal to nearly 30 percent of its current electricity-generating capacity from all sources. The Philippines, the No. 2 producer after the U.S., aims to increase its installed geothermal capacity by 2013 by over 60 percent, to just over 3,100 MW.

But first impediments in both countries to expanded geothermal investment must be removed. A presidential decree in Indonesia earlier this month (October) offered tax incentives for expanded production from existing fields and development of new resources. However, political bickering in the Philippines has blocked passage of a renewable energy bill to provide greater incentives and clarity.

In both countries, official red tape, difficulty in gaining access to public and private land for development projects, and disputes over the price offered for geothermal electricity going into state-owned power supply networks has slowed progress.

Now the global squeeze on credit and the recent fall in prices of competing fossil fuel energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas, are putting additional barriers in way of geothermal expansion.

Still, the potential for growth remains promising. According to a recent survey by the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, geothermal energy is being tapped in 24 countries, five of which used it to produce 15 per cent or more of their total electricity.

In the first half of this year, worldwide-installed geothermal power capacity passed 10,000 MW and now produces enough electricity to meet the needs of 60 million people, roughly the population of Britain. By 2010, capacity could increase to 13,500 MW in 46 countries.

Most geothermal plants in operation around the world tap into underground pockets of high-temperature water or steam to drive steam turbines. These ventures need high capital investment for exploration, drilling and plant and pipeline construction, compared to coal or gas-fired electricity plants. However, operation and maintenance costs are relatively low.

Now, however, new geothermal technologies enable electricity to be generated at much lower temperatures. They use liquids with lower boiling points than water in heat exchange systems, opening a vast new frontier for geothermal power.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is an energy and security specialist at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.


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