Waste of energy: why Japan’s gamble on power since Fukushima could mean a hot summer, rolling blackouts, and the restart of nuclear plants
- Japan’s power shortage can be traced to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as expensive LNG and dirty coal have been unable to make up electricity shortfall
- Officials warned that citizens may need to cut back on electricity consumption and to be prepared for rolling blackouts during Japan’s oppressive summer heat
The government convened a meeting of ministers and energy experts on Tuesday to address a looming energy shortage that could start in the coming weeks and concluded that the public and industry should be instructed to cut back on their electricity consumption and even be prepared for rolling blackouts at times of extreme shortages.
“The government will not set a uniform numerical target to save electricity this summer, but we will ask people to cooperate in saving electricity and energy as much as possible,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said after the meeting.
Ministries have been instructed to draw up ways to increase electricity output, with one option the resumption of operations at thermal power plants that have been suspended due to their age. Government agencies are also working on a campaign to show the public ways to limit their electricity consumption, while still making sure they do not fall victim to heatstroke.
The government’s admission that the nation faces a significant energy shortfall through the summer months comes hard on the heels of the warning from the Meteorological Agency that average temperatures will be noticeably higher. The city of Kumagaya recorded a temperature of 33.8 C on May 29, nearly 10 degrees hotter than the average day in May.
Northern and eastern Japan are expected to experience particularly high temperatures this year, the agency cautioned, partly due to La Nina conditions lingering in the Pacific.
“Since the Fukushima disaster, the minimum reserve ratio has been set at 3 per cent and if it falls below that figure then the government has plans in place to implement rolling blackouts as and when they are needed,” he said.
According to government predictions, the rate is expected to be at 3.1 per cent in Tokyo, the Tohoku region of northern Japan and in the Chubu district around the city of Nagoya in the central part of the country in July. Even a relatively minor increase in demand could push the figure below the 3 per cent figure.
Even more worryingly, official predictions indicate the ratio will fall to zero in Tokyo in January and February, when demand for heating is traditionally at its peak.
Nei says the two primary factors behind the looming problem are the failure of the government to convince the public to permit the resumption of operations at the national nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster and the soaring price of LNG, the energy source that Japan largely turned to in the aftermath of Fukushima.
Nuclear energy is providing around 6 per cent of the total needed, with the government hoping to convince more communities and local governments to permit plants to restart if they meet exacting new safety standards. By the end of the decade, the government hopes that nuclear power will provide as much as 22 per cent of the nation’s needs – but that will be of no help this year.
The situation has been exacerbated, said Martin Schulz, chief policy economist for Fujitsu’s Global Market Intelligence Unit, by a number of ageing thermal power plants being shut down and the failure of the renewables sector to pick up the slack in demand.
“This is a hangover from Fukushima, when LNG and coal had to quickly fill the gap when nuclear was no longer available,” he said. “But LNG is now expensive and nobody wants coal because it is dirty.
“The government planned to bring nuclear back much more quickly than it has been able to, because of public opposition, and there has been no clear policy on renewable energy sources and a lack of the investment that is needed to make solar, wave, tidal, geothermal and others viable,” he said.
Rising prices for consumers will inevitably serve to reduce consumption as households turn off their air conditioners to keep their bills manageable, Schulz said, while industrial users will also find ways to cut consumption.
Professor Nei said the government is already pressuring importers to procure more LNG, despite the high price, but he also senses an ulterior motive in the government’s strategy.
“I have heard it suggested by ministry officials that rising prices combined with rolling blackouts through the summer months might serve to convince the public that they need to approve the restarting of the nuclear plants,” he said.