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Saving power a challenge as temperature drops in quake-hit Hokkaido

The No. 4 power-generating turbine at the Tomato-Atsuma Thermal Power Plant catches fire and emits smoke shortly after a strong earthquake triggered a power outage on Sept. 6, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Hokkaido Electric Power Co.)

ASAHIKAWA, Hokkaido -- Households and businesses are facing a tough challenge to save energy amid the continuing electricity shortage triggered by the Sept. 6 earthquake that devastated a local thermal power plant in this northernmost prefecture, which will begin to face bitter wintery temperatures as early as October.

The earthquake, measuring a full 7 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale, damaged the prefecture's Tomato-Atsuma Thermal Power Plant so badly that the facility will not come back online fully until November at the earliest, according to its operator Hokkaido Electric Power Co. In response, the central government set a power saving goal of 20 percent for the entire prefecture, although the cap may be eased later this month.

This arrangement is not ideal for the residents of the city of Asahikawa in central Hokkaido, one of the areas where winter brings the nation's lowest temperatures and heavy snowfall. On Sept. 11, the mercury went down to 7.7 degrees Celsius -- a temperature observed in late September in an average year.

"We use electric heaters, so the power shortage is a problem," said 51-year-old Tokuharu Tsubota, who heads "Ikoino-sato Asahikawa" senior citizens home. The 76 residents in their 70s and 80s include people with problems keeping their body temperatures stable and some even feel the cold in the middle of summer, explained Tsubota. "We may try to only keep heating our day care center and cut power in unused rooms, but there are limits to things we can do," he said with apparent uneasiness.

Similar concerns grip the Kawayu Kanko Hotel in the town of Teshikaga in eastern Hokkaido. The accommodation facility has already started to turn off lights in unused areas and remove lighting equipment, but manager Tsutomu Minami revealed that the hotel has no choice but to lower the heating temperature with the understanding of guests if the power saving scheme continues into October or later.

The power cut is hitting farmers, too. Toshiaki Yamada, 57, runs a ranch with about 500 milking cows in the town of Makubetsu in the Tokachi region of eastern Hokkaido, and he is worried about the negative impact of the power shortage on his milking machines and refrigerators to keep milk. Yamada managed to continue his operations after the latest quake thanks to power generators he introduced following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but many of his fellow dairy farmers had to suspend milking and their cows thus face health problems associated with surplus milk in their bodies. Yamada emphasized that power outages during the early morning and evening hours when milking has to take place is too big a risk for dairy farmers.

The peak power consumption in Hokkaido before the quake was 3.83 million kilowatts recorded at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5. But the current level of available power is about 10 percent less at 3.53 million kilowatts. Furthermore, as older power plants may fail, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and Hokkaido Electric are requesting households and companies in the prefecture to lower their demand by 20 percent

According to Hokkaido Electric, the power saving rate between 6 p.m. and before 7 p.m. on Sept. 11 was 14.3 percent. It was more than the 10-percent gap between the pre-quake peak demand and the current output, although it did not reach the required 20 percent. The power capacity is insufficient because it would dip by 5 percent or so if one of the units at the prefecture's thermal power plants stopped. In any case, the peak winter demand is over 5 million kilowatts in an average year.

On Sept. 9, power saving rates stood at 50 to 60 percent in the industrial sector including major factories, but households and retailers, which account for 70 percent of power demand, reduced just several percent of their demand. This caused concern to officials at Hokkaido Electric and its regulator, METI.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, which caused serious power shortages mainly in eastern and northern Japan, the industrial sector cut 30 percent of power consumption, while the business operation sector achieved a 20-percent reduction and households dropped their use by 10 percent in areas served by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

METI officials are calling for households and retailers to further restrict their power consumption, saying that the industrial sector is shouldering too much of the burden compared to the post-2011 quake environment where a broad range of people and industries cooperated to turn off lights and equipment.

On Sept. 10, the saving rates were about 18 percent for industries and some 15 percent each for households and business operators, indicating that more residents and retailers are now committed to power cuts.

While Hokkaido Electric is bent on restarting thermal and hydroelectric power plants, METI is stepping up its efforts to ask for more power saving.

(Japanese original by Nobuyuki Yokota, Asahikawa Bureau; Hitoshi Suzuki, Obihiro Bureau; Kimitaka Hirayama, Kushiro Bureau; and Kenji Wada, Business News Department)

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