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Hokkaido businesses struggling back to full capacity amid power shortage

The inside of a home electronics shop in the Chuo Ward of Sapporo is seen on Sept. 10, 2018. Many of the TVs on display have been switched off in response to a central government call to save electricity in Japan's northernmost prefecture. (Mainichi)

SAPPORO -- Many Hokkaido shops and factories were back in operation on Sept. 10 after a magnitude-6.7 temblor entirely blacked out Japan's northernmost prefecture four days before. However, with the island's largest thermal power plant still offline due to quake damage and the central government's consequent call for Hokkaido residents to cut electricity consumption by 20 percent, businesses here are having trouble returning to full capacity.

Toyota Motor Corp. decided on Sept. 10 to gradually resume operations at all its domestic assembly plants starting on Sept. 11, suspended after the Hokkaido quake and blackout. The move came after Toyota Motor Hokkaido Inc., a subsidiary making transmission and other vehicle components based in Tomakomai in the prefecture's southwest, restarted production on Sept. 10, allowing parts deliveries to resume. Toyota is aiming to have all its domestic assembly plants running at full capacity again by Sept. 13.

Full operations were scheduled to restart on Sept. 11 at six Toyota group factories including the plant in Toyoda, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, while some production lines at five others were also set to resume. A Toyota PR representative stated the company would "take appropriate measures" to fulfill the government's 20 percent power use cut demand for Hokkaido, including shifting the timing of parts manufacturing and workers' breaks to reduce peak period electricity consumption.

Meanwhile, full power was restored to Isuzu Engine Manufacturing Hokkaido Co., a Tomakomai-based Isuzu Motors Ltd. subsidiary making engine parts, on Sept. 8, and the plant went back into operation after an equipment inspection. Company officials are considering temporarily suspending the production lines of lower priority parts to meet the 20 percent electricity use cut requirement.

The power came back on at Kyocera Corp.'s electronics plant in Kitami, in Hokkaido's northeast, on the evening of Sept. 7. Provisional operations resumed on the weekend of Sept. 8-9 to compensate for disaster-related manufacturing delays. Meanwhile, electronics giant Panasonic Corp. restarted production of automobile components at its factory in the central Hokkaido city of Obihiro. The firm's mobile phone component plant in Chitose, southwestern Hokkaido, is still performing equipment inspections and likely won't resume production for between a few days and a week. Panasonic is looking to both meet its power-saving commitment and ramp back up to full manufacturing capacity with privately generated electricity.

Food firm Calbee Inc. has three plants in Hokkaido making potato chips and other items, two of which resumed production on Sept. 10. The remaining factory was set to restart the following day.

On the retail side, most convenience stores and supermarkets in the prefecture are now back in business following the quake and blackout, their shelves well stocked as supplies of drinks and snacks are restored and prepared food factories making bento boxed lunches and the like resume production.

Major local supermarket chain MaxValu Hokkaido Co. had mostly restored its logistics chain by Sept. 9. However, short-life perishables such as milk, bread and tofu continue to be on back order. Supermarket and convenience store companies overall are looking at ways to cut power use, including removing every second overhead light at their shops and offices.

Also on the energy-saving front, beer maker Sapporo Breweries Ltd. has resumed production and shipment of its canned beverages, which require less power than their counterparts in bottles or casks. Competitor Kirin Brewery Co. expects to restart shipments on Sept. 12.

Logistics services are also beginning to recover. Delivery company Yamato Transport Co. resumed operations on Sept. 8, as did Japan Post Co. on Sept. 9, except for parts of the area around the quake's epicenter.

Meanwhile, major firms in Hokkaido including steel and paper manufacturers are using their independent electrical generating capacity not just to return to full operation amid the energy crunch, but also to provide power to other businesses and private homes after a request for assistance from Hokkaido Electric Power Co.

Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp.'s Muroran plant in Hokkaido's southwest started its 100,000-kilowatt capacity generating station on Sept. 7 and, as an independent power producer (IPP), began feeding electricity to Hokkaido Electric. The plant also resumed operations on Sept. 10 using its own power.

Nippon Paper Industries Co. also began supplying power to the utility on Sept. 7 from the 80,000-kilowatt capacity generating station at its Kushiro, northeastern Hokkaido plant, which was being inspected when it was damaged by the previous day's quake. The company's operations in central Hokkaido's Asahikawa, and in the communities of Yufutsu and Shiraoi in the prefecture's southwest, also started up their independent generators to provide power to Hokkaido Electric. Fellow paper maker Oji Holdings Corp. is planning to do the same with generators at the firm's plants in Tomakomai, Kushiro, and Ebetsu, the latter in western Hokkaido.

JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. began supplying power to the Hokkaido utility on Sept. 7 from the firm's generating station Muroran plant. At first, it was providing 14,000 kilowatts, but boosted that to 40,000 kilowatts on Sept. 10 in anticipation of increased demand.

According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as of Sept. 10 there was some 3.46 million kilowatts available to Hokkaido's electric grid. Of this, about 500,000 kilowatts, or some 14 percent, was being generated privately, making the IPPs a vital part of the prefecture's post-quake energy supply.

(Japanese original by Yoshinori Ogura, Nagoya News Center, and Ryo Yanagisawa and Mikako Yokoyama, Business News Department)

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