This summer, six expert staff members from Indonesia's Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources visited the Hatchobaru geothermal power plant, at the foot of the Kuju mountain range.
Owned by Kyushu Electric Power Co., the plant boasts the largest electricity generation capacity of any geothermal plant in Japan. The Indonesian staff was receiving training with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
"How many operational staff do you have?"
"What's the rate of the decline in the steam supply?"
"How often do you bore new wells?"
During their observation tour on Aug. 8, the six Indonesians bombarded their Japanese instructors with a barrage of questions. They closely scrutinized the plant's boring and measurement equipment, and learned Japanese-style management techniques for detailed checking of temperature and pressure in geothermal reservoirs where heat accumulates underground.
"Japan has a long history of geothermal power generation and considerable expertise. We need its assistance," says chief of cooperation division, Center for Geological Resources, Suhanto Edi, 43.
Indonesia, one of the world's most volcanically active countries, is actively pursuing geothermal development. It is a response to the rapid increase in electricity demand, and the power generation capacity of the country's geothermal plants is already 1,200 megawatts, more than double that of Japan. An ambitious goal has been set of expanding capacity by another 3,000 megawatts by 2014.
However, as it has relied on foreign companies to provide the basis for development, such as resource exploration and data analysis, there is an urgent need to cultivate human resources.
The Japanese instructors who shared their know-how with the Indonesian contingent are technicians from Fukuoka-based Kyushu Electric subsidiary West Japan Engineering Consultants (WJEC). The company was recently in the news for its involvement in a scandal over e-mail messages calling for reactors to be restarted at the Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture, but its track record in geothermal development is among the best in the world. It has a long-standing reputation in the global geothermal industry.
Its geothermal department is comprised of around 40 technicians with specializations in geology, civil engineering, machinery and more. Eleven have doctorates. Many of them are fluent in Indonesian and Spanish, not to mention English.
WJEC is renowned for its reservoir evaluation technology, which is vital for extended utilization of geothermal resources without causing the steam supply to decline. It is used to assess the subterranean structure and estimate where best to bore wells, which cost several hundred million yen each.
Kyushu Electric Power Co. owns five of Japan's 18 geothermal power plants. WJEC originally worked mainly on projects for Kyushu Electric, and expanded its operations in 1978 with the establishment of its geothermal department. However, no new geothermal power stations have been built by Kyushu Electric since 1996, when the Takigami plant in Oita Prefecture went into operation. Interest in geothermal energy waned as the memory of the 1970s oil crisis faded, and the government also scaled back its geothermal surveys. Japanese geothermal development companies felt the pinch across the board.
Looking for a way to survive, WJEC turned its attention to the overseas market. Based on experience gained from branching out into Indonesia and the Philippines during the 1970s, it expanded its activities to encompass countries in South America and Africa, as well as Turkey and Hungary, and now it always has more than 10 projects on the go. In 2007, it also took on the creation of a "geothermal development master plan" that would serve as a blueprint for the Indonesian government.
Its foreign operations, which represented around 20 percent of its business until the early 1990s, now account for 60 percent.
"The geothermal market in Japan is extremely small, so we had no choice but to go abroad in order to take advantage of our technology and human resources," says geothermal department chief Koichi Tagomori, 56.
Plant manufacturers are also putting the stagnant domestic market to one side and expanding their geothermal business overseas. Approximately 80 percent of the world's geothermal power plants were made by Japanese companies. The three market leaders are Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba and Fuji Electric.
Steam used in geothermal power generation produces 100 to 200 times more impurities than thermal or nuclear power, which cause unique problems such as the accumulation of mineral deposits (silica scale) in pipes and other apparatus. Plants depend on Japanese parts for their reliability.
Compared to nuclear power and other energy sources, geothermal power plants are a small-scale niche market. Major Western manufacturers such as General Electric of the United States and Siemens AG of Germany have taken a hesitant stance toward them.
The dominance of Japanese companies has remained unchanged, and they have supplied about 80 percent of plants built in the last 10 years. Shigeto Yamada, general manager of Fuji Electric's Power Plant Equipment Factory, is full of confidence.
"No matter what the country, we are doing our utmost to increase orders, regardless of which country they come from."
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