Mitsubishi Materials Corp., Kyushu Electric Power Co. and several other Japanese firms plan to start developing geothermal power for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Mitsubishi Materials and J-Power plan to collectively invest 40 billion yen ($433.9 million) to build a geothermal power plant in the Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, reported Nikkei, a business daily (via Reuters). Mitsubishi currently owns two geothermal power plants. J-Power has one.

A desire to build generate clean power is fueling the resurging interest in geothermal power. Tapping steam and hot water for generating electricity also could help the country meet its goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Japan is having trouble meeting those goals, and has announced several initiatives over the past year to reduce emissions (see Japan Proposes $4B to Cut Emissions). The government is due to start offering incentives for residents to put solar panels on their rooftops.

Most of the country's electricity comes from power plants that run on combustible fuels, according to the most recent survey by the International Energy Agency. Nuclear power ranks second, followed by hydro and then a category that includes geothermal, wind and solar.

Renewable electricity generation grew 16 percent between September 2007 and September 2008 while other types of generation declined, the IEA said.

Japan has 18 geothermal power plants that contribute to only about 0.2 percent of the total electricity generated in the country, the Nikkei said.

Exploring geothermal resources makes sense for a country that has many active volcanoes and hot springs. One of the big cultural attractions for residents and international tourists alike are the onsens, public bathhouses that pipe water in from hot springs.

Tapping this hot water could significantly boost the country's clean energy production. The government has warmed up to the idea as well, and plans to assemble a group of industry and academic experts to study what will take to boost geothermal power developments, the Nikkei reported.

The power plant being developed by Mitsubishi Materials and J-Power would have a 60-megawatt capacity. But it isn't scheduled to begin production until 2016 at the earliest.

A strong interest for clean energy elsewhere in the world also has refocused attention on geothermal power, which isn't a new invention. Iceland, another volcanic country, saw its first geothermal energy development in 1907, when a farmer connected a concrete pipe from a hot spring to his house, according to Icelandic bank Glitnir.

Google has been a booster of geothermal power. It invested millions to companies that are developing a new technology to artificially create steam fields, a method that could enable geothermal power generation in places that were previously deemed undesirable (see Google Funds Hot Rock Technology and AltaRock Breaks New Ground With Geothermal Power).