Utilities perform high-wire balancing act to avoid shortages
Despite record-setting high temperatures and only two nuclear power reactors still operating in the entire country, the electric grid throughout Japan seems to have made it through the summer without a single blackout, brownout or obligatory conservation measures, such as the rolling power blackouts that crippled parts of the greater Kanto region in the immediate wake of the March 11, 2011 disaster.
How, asks Shukan Shincho (Aug 29), did the nation’s power utility companies manage to pull off such a miracle?
“During the peak, around Aug 11, central Tokyo never dropped below 30 degrees Celsius, the highest ever recorded in the past 138 years,” says veteran meteorologist Masamitsu Morita. “On Aug 13, out of 927 monitoring points around the country, 106 reported their highest temperatures in history. We may be looking at a ‘once in a thousand years’ period of high temperatures that has not been seen for 1,000 years.”
Yet despite this unremitting heat, it’s rare to hear voices from the government or private sector calling for increased efforts to conserve power.
“In 2011, the government urged people being serviced by the Tokyo and Tohoku electric power utilities to reduce their power consumption across the board by 15% from the previous year’s levels,” says a reporter on the staff of a major daily newspaper. “But this year no consumption targets were set.”
Any decision to initiate obligatory conservation controls, the magazine explains, would be based on the transitory peaks in demand for power, which rise and fall according to the weather, time of day and day of the week. If the maximum demand were to exceed the ability to supply such demand, outages might very well occur.
A spokesperson for Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) explains that on July 23, 2010, total sector-wide demand for power was 59,999,000 kw. But on Aug 18, 2011, it was only 49,220,000 kw. At 6 p.m. on August 9 of this year, demand was 51,090,000 kw. Based on these figures, it would appear that peak summer demand has been shaved by 15%. Much of the reduction, says journalist Reiichiro Fujimori, is due to greater consumer awareness of the need for conservation.
“People are turning off unnecessary lights at home,” says energy conservation adviser Fumiko Yamagawa. “Companies, department stores and so on are also taking various measures, like leaving hand dryers in the rest rooms switched off.”
Fujimori also notes that companies have reduced working hours and more houses are installing their own home generation devices, such as fuel cell stations, or are using more power-thrifty appliances, LED lighting, and so on.
Having thermal reactors available to back up the system, according to TEPCO’s spokesperson, has been sufficient to avoid shortfalls. But this does not necessarily mean that the utility can say it’s got the problem licked. For one thing, the thermal generators that now supply more than 90% of Tokyo’s power needs are old—more than 40 years old. Should trouble flare up unexpectedly, this could mean problems.
“Actually in June, a fire broke out in the million kilowatt No. 2 generator at Sodegaura (Chiba Prefecture), and we had to take it off line for a month for repairs,” says TEPCO’s spokesperson, adding that “Things were touch and go for a while.”
He noted that there have been several other close shaves, but so far, major problems were avoided.
It’s important to understand that Japan’s electric power utilities at present are not in what can be called robust condition. In addition to struggling to meet demand, they also face problems related to hydrocarbon output, which has risen considerably since the nuclear reactors were shut off after 3/11.
Economic pundit Takuro Morinaga fears that if the present situation continues indefinitely, more price hikes will be unavoidable.
“Before the earthquake/tsunami, the average electricity charge per household was 6,200 yen per month,” says Morinaga. “From next month, the average will rise to around 8,000 yen, and eventually I think it will pass 10,000 yen. This will place a burden on industry and reduce competitiveness. Although energy policies are supposed to be one of the nation’s fundamental keystones, I don’t really see any encouraging future prospects.”