On 5 December 2012, Mr. Stefan Larus Stefansson, ambassador of Iceland to Japan, delivered a lecture at the United Nations University (UNU) Headquarters in Tokyo. His lecture was part of the University’s Ambassador Lecture Series, a forum that provides an opportunity for UNU students, fellows and interns to directly engage with government officials on political, economic, and social issues.
Amb. Stefansson spoke on the topic of geothermal energy utilization in Japan, advocating that the country should harness its enormous untapped geothermal energy resources by using Iceland’s 85-year history of success in this area as a model. The ambassador highlighted that this was his second time speaking on the issue at UNU, having previously participated in the Japan– Iceland Geothermal Forum in November 2010.
The ambassador called geothermal energy the “backbone of the Icelandic economy”; 66 percent of Iceland’s primary energy comes from geothermal resources. In contrast, despite having the world’s third-largest potential for geothermal energy, Japan built its last geothermal energy plant in 1999, and all research funding from the government ceased in 2003.
The ambassador explained this was the result of a conscious decision made by the Japanese government to funnel its resources into nuclear energy, underscoring the irony of such a choice being made by the host country to the Kyoto Protocol agreement. In reference to the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters (and the resulting radiation, which travelled as far as Sweden and Norway in the former case), the ambassador lamented that “nuclear isn’t a domestic political issue. If something goes wrong, it turns into an international issue.” He pointed out that Japan could replace 25 nuclear reactors if it were to fully dedicate its efforts to developing geothermal resources.
Amb. Stefansson presented the findings from several Japanese researchers who champion the numerous benefits to Japan of exploiting its abundant, naturally occurring geothermal energy. Whilst snowy regions hold the highest proportion of geothermal energy resources in Japan, inhabitants there rely almost solely on kerosene oil to heat their homes. In contrast, 92 percent of houses in Iceland are heated by geothermal hot water, and heating prices are the lowest in Northern Europe (a mere ¥7,780 per household, on average, according to May 2011 estimates). If Japan were to follow suit, it could drastically cut home heating bills whilst minimizing carbon dioxide emissions and and creating economy-boosting new jobs.
The ambassador further emphasized the fact that nearly all geothermal turbines in Iceland are made in Japan. If more nations embraced geothermal resources as a means of creating energy, Japan could have a huge export market for its technology.
The ambassador engaged with the audience in a lively question-and-answer session on issues that included the potential drawbacks of geothermal energy (particularly the perceived impacts on hot springs, or onsen) and the issue of building geothermal plants in national parks. Ambassador Stefansson pointed out how geothermal energy and the tourism industries in Icleand have worked in harmony with projects such as the Blue Lagoon, a world-famous hot springs resort that was created by geothermal power from a nearby plant.
“The potential for geothermal energy is only limited by people’s imagination”, he emphasized, citing a plethora of other uses for geothermal energy, including land-based fish farming, greenhouse cultivation, as well as medical and cosmetic purposes. He closed by calling on governments of countries with untapped geothermal potential to take responsibility for the world’s people and the future of the planet.