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Power shortage sheds light on inadequate post-quake response by Japan gov't, utility firms

People are seen walking down a hallway of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward dimly lit on March 22, 2022, in response to requests to save electricity. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

TOKYO -- The weakness of Japan's power supply infrastructure came to light after the government recently issued an alert as electricity supply in the service areas covered by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Holdings Inc. and Tohoku Electric Power Co. could not keep up with demand.

    This is the first time a power supply alert was issued since the system was established in 2012, and businesses and others expressed confusion over sudden calls to conserve energy. Why did this even happen?

    "The power saving effect is below the target. Unfortunately, at this rate we will have to execute a wide-area power outage," said Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Koichi Hagiuda, who called for people to save electricity in an emergency press conference held around 2:45 p.m. on March 22 at the ministry.

    The power shortage was caused by the earthquake off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture on the night of March 16. Power stations transmitting electricity to TEPCO's jurisdiction, such as Soma Kyodo Power Co.'s Shinchi Thermal Power Station -- jointly funded by Tohoku Electric and power generation firm JERA Co. -- in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Shinchi, closest to the earthquake epicenter, and Tohoku Electric's Haramachi Thermal Power Station in the prefectural city of Minamisoma, halted operations. As of March 22, eight thermal power stations, equivalent to just under five nuclear power plants, lost the supply capacity of 4.54 million kilowatts.

    This was combined with the unseasonably cold weather. The highest temperature in Tokyo on March 22 was much lower than in an average year, causing sleet and cold rain. Demand for electricity for heating "has reached an exceptionally high level for this period," Hagiuda described.

    Due to the bad weather conditions, the amount of solar power generated in TEPCO's service area on March 22 was only a few percent of the total supply capacity, and both TEPCO and Tohoku Electric were hit by power shortages.

    The government and major power companies had been on the alert this winter, saying that electricity's supply-demand balance was the tightest in the last decade. However, part of the response was lifted when the cold eased at the end of February, and some thermal power stations began regular inspections, leading to a low excess supply capacity. As a result of these adverse conditions, supply and demand became tighter and created a danger of power outages.

    Responses from the government and TEPCO were slow. After the March 16 earthquake, there were concerns that thermal power could stop and lead to power shortages, but TEPCO only called for people to save electricity on its website and refrained from taking extra steps. Then suddenly on the night of March 21, it was announced that power supply would be 10% short of demand. Though a senior economy ministry official explained that it was "difficult to judge how short power supply was," the temperature drop on March 22 was forecast the day before or even earlier.

    Initially, the economy ministry's announcement on the evening of March 21 did not mention anything about a power supply alert. The warning is issued by the government to areas covered by relevant power companies if the electricity reserve ratio is less than 3% even when power interchange is conducted between firms. The government calls for caution in the power supply and demand situation, but the requirement for saving electricity is not legally binding. However, the sense of urgency was not conveyed as the announcement did not put great emphasis on the alert.

    Hagiuda admitted the initial announcement was inadequate as the information on the power supply alert had to be added in a press release afterwards. "I would like to frankly reflect on the lack of clarity in the released materials," he said.

    Soma Kyodo Power Co.'s large cranes are seen damaged by the earthquake that struck on the night of March 16 in this photo taken in the town of Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 22, 2022. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

    Due to delays in responses and a lack of publicity, power saving efforts on March 22 temporarily fell into a situation where "only about one-third of the required amount had been met," according to a TEPCO executive. This development made those involved nervous.

    The power usage restriction order, which imposes specific power conservation goals with penalties on clients using a lot of electricity, could not be used as it takes several months to adjust. In the end, Hagiuda and others had no choice but to announce the crisis at the press conference. A blackout was avoided in the end after companies cooperated in saving power by taking measures such as suspending operations of factories and the lighting of buildings.

    In response to the inadequate measures, an official of a major electrical equipment manufacturer pointed out, "Telework has become established due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only 20 to 30% are working from the office. There is a limit to how much power we can save." An individual in the automobile industry complained about the handling by the government and the electric power companies, saying, "Even if we're suddenly told to save electricity, we can't fully respond during long weekends."

    (Japanese original by Yuki Takahashi, Taiki Asakawa and Hajime Nakatsugawa, Business News Department)

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