May 24, 2011


Japan's Power Shortages and Countermeasures After the Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.104 (April 2011)

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami waves up to 38 meters high struck the northeastern part of Japan, causing widespread devastation. As of April 11, a month after the disasters, the death toll exceeded 13,000, with 14,600 still missing and about 150,000 people still in shelters. It will take a lot of time, money, and effort to restore and reconstruct the affected areas.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami also caused serious damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO). These multiple disasters have damaged the ability to supply electricity in eastern Japan. In this article, we would like to inform you of what happened to Japan's electricity supply and demand, the current circumstances, future outlook, and what measures are being considered to cope with the situation.

What Happened to Electricity Supply and Demand in Japan after the Disaster?

The devastating earthquake and tsunami cut the power supply from many thermal and nuclear power plants located along the Pacific coast in northeastern Japan, and caused heavy damage to their facilities. In TEPCO's power system, eight power plants (generating a total 21.96 million kilowatts), including the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station (4.70 million kilowatts) and the Fukushima Daini nuclear power station (4.40 million kilowatts), stopped operating, and another five plants (generating a total 5.64 million kilowatts) stopped in the system of the Tohoku Electric Power Co. Since there were still heating energy needs in mid-March when the earthquake struck, electricity supply suddenly fell short of demand.

What Is Being Done?

In response to the power shortage, two major actions have been taken on the supply side. One is to deliver electricity from other areas using the power lines interconnected across the boundaries of utility company service areas. Up to 600,000 kilowatts of electricity are being provided from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. There are many power plants in western Japan, but the amount of electricity that can be sent to eastern Japan is limited to one million kilowatts because of a difference in electrical frequencies between regions. When Japan first introduced power generation systems in the Meiji period, a 50-hertz generator was imported from Germany to the Kanto region in eastern Japan, and a 60-hertz generator was brought from the United States to the Kansai region in western Japan. With these two different frequencies still being used today, the amount of electricity transmitted across the border is determined by the capacity of frequency conversion facilities.

The other effort on the supply side is to get help from other companies. Some hydroelectric power stations, located near the boundary between 50 and 60 hertz regions, are now generating electricity at 50 hertz, instead of their normal frequency of 60 hertz. Extra generating capacities, such as at privately owned power facilities, are being procured from other utility companies. Many user companies are also providing support by independently generating their own power. In particular, Mori Building Co., an urban development firm, has a power generator fueled by city gas at its Roppongi Hills high-rise building complex in central Tokyo, and is providing up to 4,000 kilowatts of electricity to TEPCO.

To avoid abrupt, large-scale power outages, TEPCO introduced rolling blackouts, or planned power outages, as a means to control electricity use on the demand side. The company divided its service area into five sections according to the locations of distribution substations, and started rotating power outages lasting a few hours in each section, while forecasting the balance between electricity supply and demand for the day.

At first, there was a great deal of confusion, as well as tragedy. A man was killed in a crash at an intersection with darkened traffic signals. A woman, who was hit by a truck at another dark intersection and sent to a hospital, became seriously ill because a power outage prevented doctors from doing a computed tomography (CT) scan. Various other problems occurred during the blackouts. For example, loss of power risked home medical care, and pumps stopped during blackouts caused water failure in condominiums.

These planned power outages also prevented factories, shops, and train services from operating normally. A three-hour power outage each day may mean no operation for a full day when the start-up time of machines in factories is taken into consideration. Some entire train lines were cancelled and the frequency of services were cut, resulting in no train service for a few days in some areas. (Because our JFS office, which is located a 30-minute ride from central Tokyo, and my home faced the same situations, I had to cancel all my scheduled appointments to go out, and JFS's employee who usually commutes by train worked at home.) The transportation network in the metropolitan area is so extensively interconnected that people everywhere immediately got stuck and plans were disrupted when the trains stopped running.

The chaos was compounded by confusing grouping of power outages due to inconsistencies between the service areas of distributing substations and administrative districts. Inadequate and delayed information provided by TEPCO also made the situation worse. Because planned power outages are conducted based on the prediction of demand and supply, they could be avoided if everyone saves electricity. But people who prepared for a power outage according to the previously-announced time were disrupted again in cases where the power stoppage was cancelled. Cynics complained that the supposed "planned" outages were poorly planned.

As an aside, many people retweeted humorous tweets at the time like this one: "Reaction to planned power outage in different countries. France: Lovers woo each other. Germany: We have solar cells. Japan: Power outages were avoided by people's efforts to save power, and then people got furious when the outages were cancelled." (This comment precisely portrays the character of the Japanese people.)

To handle the situation more precisely, TEPCO improved the system by subdividing further, to create 25 groups instead of the original five. Planned power outages, which had lasted since the earthquake, ended on April 8 when TEPCO announced that it could discontinue the rolling outages, thanks to the recovery of a demand-and-supply balance. However, many people think the reprieve is only temporary because heating demand decreased with the arrival of spring.

State of the Demand-and-Supply Balance this Summer

The demand-and-supply situation coming this summer is predicted to be 46.5 million kilowatts of electric supply with 55 million kilowatts of assumed maximum demand, resulting in a huge electricity shortfall of up to 10 million kilowatts at peak times. If compared with the 59.99 million kilowatts of the maximum electricity supply during last year's extremely hot summer, the power supply could be short by 15 million kilowatts.

It takes a few years to increase electricity supply on a large scale by modifying frequency conversion stations and constructing new power generation facilities, including thermal power plants, meaning it is too late for us to get through this summer with enough supply. Even if we accelerate the introduction of solar, wind, and other renewable energies, they cannot provide extensive electricity on a short-term basis, because they account for only 3 percent of the country's current power needs. (Needless to say, I would hope that today's short-term emergency response should support, not hamper, the formulation of mid- and long-term measures to combat global warming and the building of a sustainable society.)

In case of short supplies, we have no choice but to control demand. We need to cut our power needs by 20 to 25 percent at peak time. How can we control enough of our needs to prevent more planned power outages? Measures and projects initiated by the government, municipalities, businesses, and citizens are expected to do the job.

Japan experienced huge social confusion during the 1972 oil shock, when the gap between energy supply and demand widened. While it was a gap of the total amount during the oil shock, now it is a gap at peak time; the main focus lies on how to control on-peak energy demand.

Japanese electricity users can be categorized into three groups, each of which needs its own control measures. One is the commercial-scale users, whose currently effective contract demand is more than 500 kilowatts. There are 15,000 of them in Japan, and these are business operators such as companies and plants. Another is the small-scale users, whose currently effective contract demand is less than 500 kilowatts. There are 3.2 million of these business operators such as ordinary offices and convenience stores. The third group is the 21 million households, whose currently effective contract demand is less than 50 kilowatts. The estimated actual power consumption of each group is as follows: the commercial-scale users group accounts for about 15 percent of the total, and the small-scale users group and households group each account for a little over 40 percent, respectively.

TEPCO offers a "contract for adjustment of supply and demand" to commercial-scale users. Under the system, users are allowed to use electricity at a discount price under normal conditions, but when electricity demand becomes close to the supply, they are obliged to control their own power consumption. Under such urgent conditions, they must reduce their consumption for more than three hours continuously by more than 20 percent of their contract demand or more than 1,000 kilowatts. There are three types regarding the starting time of limitation. The users should reduce their consumption (1) as soon as receiving TEPCO's notice, (2) within one hour of receiving the notice, or (3) within three hours after receiving the notice. According to newspapers accounts, more than 1,200 commercial-scale users are under this type of contract.

Moreover, there are other types of contracts: (1) the instantaneous adjustment power contract, (2) a contract during summer vacations that requires users to operate their business on holidays instead of weekdays between July and September whenever TEPCO makes the request, (3) a summer-time operation adjustment contract that requires users to adjust their power use for a certain period that TEPCO specifies between July and September, and (4) a peak-time adjustment contract that requires users to adjust their power consumption for a certain time during 1 to 4 p.m. on any day that TEPCO requests between June and September. In April 2011, TEPCO eased the requirements for companies to enter such contracts for the adjustment of supply and demand, thereby making it possible to increase the number of contracting companies, and to promote better controls on power demand.

The Japanese government plans to impose mandatory curbs on electricity use, based on article 27 of the Electricity Business Act "Restriction on Use of Electricity," by requesting commercial-scale users such as businesses and plants to cut their electricity consumption at peak time on weekdays by 25 percent. This will be the first time for the government to invoke such compulsory restrictions since 1974, when corporate users -- except for waterworks departments, schools, and railway companies -- were obliged to reduce power consumption by 15 percent due to the oil crisis.

Also, in the business sector, various industry groups are drawing up voluntary energy-saving plans. Led by the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), companies are considering operating their plants during usual summer vacations, weekends, and nighttime, when the peak demand is reduced, or operating each company's plant on a day-by-day rotating basis. Moreover, each company is making its own energy-saving plans, such as giving employees a longer summer vacation and fewer holidays in other periods. For example, this year Sony Corporation says the company will extend its usual four-day summer vacation to about two weeks, while all national holidays in the latter half of this year will be changed to business days.

Regarding commercial-scale users, we can grasp how much the power demand is curbed due to the government's mandatory restrictions and the leadership of industrial groups, but the number of such users is limited and accounts for only 15 percent of total power consumption. For small-scale users, the government intends to set a reduction target of 20 percent and require them to formulate specific plans, such as reducing air conditioning and having shorter business hours.

Regarding the household sector, it is difficult for the government to find effective direct control measures, since the number of individual households is large, and government orders have less impact compared to industries that have industry associations upon which government pressure can be applied. Given the present circumstances, the government is aiming for a 15 percent reduction in household power consumption by raising awareness through its official webpage and local governments, although specific measures are not yet decided.

We at Japan for Sustainability will provide information on how Japan will survive this summer without sufficient electricity and upcoming full-scale initiatives by industry, government, academia, and citizens. Due to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear power plant accidents, people in every sector in Japan are being forced to face an "absolute limit" of power supply, and need to tackle the challenge of how we manage to keep our livelihoods and businesses within the limit. To stop global warming and climate change that are becoming even more serious, we are also facing the "limit" of greenhouse gas emissions. This does not yet elicit such a strong commitment or initiatives "to absolutely keep within the limits" by all the people in Japan, but we believe that we should do so sooner than later.

We believe that our efforts, our trials and errors, and our lessons and progress to find solutions to cope with these absolute limits in the coming summer will be useful not only for Japan but for the world to learn from.

Written by Junko Edahiro

This information is provided with a grant from Artists Project Earth.