A city in Japan is trying to generate electricity from snow

After solar power, it's time we tried snow power.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Snow covered power lines closeup.
Snow covered power lines closeup.

Juhku/iStock 

Researchers from the Japanese city of Aomori have begun to study methods to create electricity from snow to provide a sustainable energy supply and meet any power shortages.

Aomori is a beautiful city in Japan located 715 km north of Tokyo. Apart from its eye-catching blue pine forests, the city is known for being one of the snowiest places on Earth — receiving about 25 to 26 feet of snow every year. 

Last year there was so much snow in the city the local authorities had to spend about $46 million (5.9 billion Yen) just to remove it from the buildings and roads. Do you know how the Japanese get rid of this much snow? They collect it and throw it into the sea — yes, all of it. 

This process may sound cool at first, but it costs a lot of time, resources, and money. A team of researchers from Aomori-based IT startup Forte and the University of Electro-Communications (UEC, Tokyo) has proposed an interesting solution to the snow problem.

They suggest that the extra snow at Aomori could be used to generate clean and affordable electric power. Yes, electricity is out of snow, and the researchers have already begun testing this idea in the swimming pool of an abandoned school building, The Japan Times reported

They also believe their approach might be helpful to many European countries that are currently facing an energy crisis amidst the Russia-Ukraine war. Most such countries in Europe have no shortage of snow, and they could employ it to produce clean energy.

How can snow generate electricity?

During their study, the Japanese scientists will employ large amounts of snow and outdoor air to power a turbine that generates electricity. The outdoor air obviously has high temperature than the air surrounding the snow because it receives some heat from the sun. 

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The researchers will use heat tubes to supply cold air (from the stored snow) and hot air (from outside) to the coolant liquid inside the turbine. The temperature difference between the cold and hot air will give rise to a convection current in the turbine’s coolant. This current will eventually make the turbine rotate and produce electricity.  

The authors claim their snow-based power generation method could reach the same efficiency as that of a solar energy plant and possibly in a much more cost-effective manner. The efficacy of this system also depends on the temperature difference factor. "The greater the temperature differences, the greater the efficiency of power generation," one of the researchers and a professor at UEC, Koji Enoki, told Nikkei Asia.

Interestingly, it’s not the first time scientists are trying to generate electricity from snow. For instance, in 2019, a team of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) developed a device that could produce electricity from falling snow

This device could only power small devices, though. There have been a few more studies in the past. However, none of those offer a scalable snow-power solution like the one proposed by Japanese researchers.    

Challenges of the snow-electricity generation method

Unlike any other renewable energy production method, the snow-electricity approach also comes with big challenges. For instance, to make this process scalable, large snow storage facilities will be required. On top of that, ensuring a continuous supply of hot air in snowy regions could also be tricky for companies operating snow-energy plants. 

The researchers will conduct their study in Aomori until March to test the feasibility of their proposed method. Meanwhile, they will also look for ways to harness the hot air from hot springs for their system and overcome other limitations. 

Hopefully, the tests will be successful and this snow-based power generation method will give rise to a new renewable energy revolution in cold regions of the world.