In Japan, the famous "onsens" or hot springs resorts so popular among pleasure-seeking Japanese are being eyed for their geothermal energy potential, according to the online magazine InventorSpot. In mid-July, officials announced a new geothermal electric plant will be built at a former ski resort near Hachimantai in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture in the northeast of the island nation. A former hot springs at the site has been closed for several years. The new plant should be in service in 2015.

The announcement came the same day as outgoing Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in a news conference, renounced nuclear power, saying, "I have come to realize…that Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear power generation." Tectonically active Japan currently has 18 geothermal generating plants in operation, producing some 535 MW of power. Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., environmental group founded by Lester Brown, estimates geothermal energy could provide up to 80 GW of electric power in Japan.

In Malaysia, private developer Tawau Green Energy (TGE) is promoting a geothermal project in the Andrassy community in the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo. According to the developer, the renewable energy project will have a generating capacity of 67 MW and will cost about $100 million (300 million Malaysian ringlit). The project is located in the Mount Andrassy Forest Reserve. According to The Borneo Post, TGE held a public meeting in the area in July to discuss it with local residents. The project got an endorsement from a local politician, assemblyman Jimmy Wong, after TGE project director Andrew Amaldoss assured him the plant is safe and TGE would give preference to locals in hiring at the plant. The newspaper reported that Wong expressed some concern about infringing on the forest reserve, which is generating carbon credits.

In the U.S., the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management has released a draft environmental impact statement for development of geothermal and solar energy projects on 59,000 acres, including 21,000 acres of federal land, in California near the Salton Sea. The area is between the Salton Sea on the west and the Marine Corps. Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range on the east. The New York Times reported that the draft EIS is a first step in a broad plan for development of renewal energy projects across the West included in a programmatic draft EIS. The West Chocolate Mountain draft statement is open to public comment through Sept. 29. BLM’s Ray Brady said, "The West Chocolate Mountains is a relatively small area in terms of acreage, but it’s a critical component in this larger effort."

In Hawaii, a project development group in July held a public meeting on Maui to outline its plans for a geothermal project, responding to a solicitation from Hawaiian Electric Co. to develop renewable resources on the island. Officials from Innovations Development Group held the meeting at a local community center to describe their plans, which include drilling rest wells for a 50-MW plant. The company said it has previously worked on a similar project in New Zealand, in conjunction with the native Maori population, the Maui News reported. A project representative put the construction cost of the project at $2.5 million/MW. Volcanically active Hawaii’s only geothermal plant is a 30-MW facility in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii, which went into service in 1993, following protests by native Hawaiians who said the project disturbed the goddess Pele by tapping the geothermal steam. The objections faded over the years of the project’s operations, the newspaper reported.

The U.S. geothermal industry has been coming under criticism recently, according to an article in The New York Times. Securities analyst John McIlveen of Jacob Securities Research says the domestic geothermal industry is in decline because of "lack of execution on the part of geothermal companies." The five major, publicly traded companies, he said, are trading far below the levels of a year ago. Several face major operating problems. Nevada Geothermal Power Inc., for example, has been unable to expand its Faulkner I project near Winnemucca, Nev., beyond 35 MW, although the project is designed and financed for 50 MW of production. It even has a $57.9 million Department of Energy federal loan guarantee. The newspaper reports that "investors are unlikely to get their money back." According to the Geothermal Energy Association, more than 120 U.S. projects are under development, representing a potential of 5,000 MW of new power.

Geothermal could benefit from the application of an oil field drilling technology now transforming the natural gas market—-hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." A 2007 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the DOE’s Idaho National Energy Laboratory identifies fracking as a useful "enhanced geothermal system" for developing projects in what the industry calls "hot dry rocks" properties, where water is injected into underground heat reservoirs to raise steam. The University of Utah is exploring the concept, with a $7.4 million DOE grant.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.