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Economy & Tech

EDITORIAL | Blackout Warning Signals Japan’s Energy Shortage

Aging thermal plants are being shut down as Japan seeks decarbonization, but solar power facilities are unable to operate during the foul winter weather.

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A street monitor in the Yurakucho district of Tokyo's city center announces the power supply shortage and blackout warning within the TEPCO service area, including all of Tokyo, on the evening of March 22, 2022.

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) issued an electrical power capacity warning on March 21 for the first time, saying there is a power shortage and risk of blackouts in Tokyo and eight other prefectures. 

The ministry called for voluntary electricity cutbacks by companies and households in the areas served by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and Tohoku Electric Power Co. 

On the night of March 16, a strong earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of Fukushima Prefecture, causing damage to thermal power plants in the region that brought about a sharp decline in the power grid output. At the same time, a sudden return of cold weather led to a sharp spike in energy usage for heating. Demand exceeded the reserve supply for electricity.

Restoring the quake-damaged power plants is expected to take some time. To cope with the situation, efforts should be made to swap electricity smoothly nationwide, while businesses and households are urged to save as much electricity as possible.

Guarding against chronic power shortages is critically important. TEPCO, in particular, has seen noticeable drops in its supply capacity in recent years, and the balance between supply and demand is on a tightrope walk every winter. It is impossible to tide over this deficiency solely by means of saving electricity. 

Inside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s government building where the lights were turned off to save electricity on March 22, 2022.

Both the public and private sectors must make efforts for securing stable energy sources so as to ramp up the nation’s power capacity.

The system of issuing a potential blackout alert was introduced after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. At the time, the government used scheduled outages in the Kanto region, including Tokyo, to deal with the power crunch caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami. 

The alert is issued when the electricity reserve margin – the difference between available power supply capacity and peak demand expressed as a percentage – is expected to fall below three percent. The power crunch alert was issued for the first time on March 21.

When electricity demand surpasses supply capacity, radio wave frequencies fluctuate erratically, giving rise to a danger of power stations halting operations en masse and triggering blackouts on a large scale.

To avert such a situation, METI issues a warning of potential blackouts, calling for conservation of electricity. On top of that, the ministry should consider regulatory measures to reduce power consumption by large-lot power users if necessary.

The sudden issuance of the alert this time was still problematic. TEPCO had asked the public on the night of March 18 to save electricity. As the METI alert came suddenly three days later on the night of March 21, large-scale factories and others were unprepared to respond by suspending operations. The ministry should have made arrangements for the alert earlier.

METI has anticipated supply shortages for this winter since 2021. This was because, while the introduction of solar and other renewable energy has been making progress in the bid for decarbonization, thermal power stations fueled by petroleum or coal have been allowed to deteriorate and shut down one after another. 

Solar power facilities cannot operate during foul weather in winter when demand for heating increases. Demand for electricity exceeded supply in the Kansai region in January 2021 as well. In the Kanto region, where nuclear power plants have yet to be restarted, power shortages are becoming commonplace.

The government and the ruling coalition parties must fully acknowledge the reality of power shortages and accelerate the resumption of nuclear power plant operations as long as their safety is confirmed. 

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(Read the editorial in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Editorial Board, the Sankei Shimbun