Power to the people: TEPCO at economic cross-purposes with blackout strategy

March 18th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

An article in this week’s Sunday Mainichi implies that Tokyo Electric Power Company’s series of planned blackouts in the Kanto region to address power shortages as a result of the failure of the Fukushima nuclear reactors is a kind of demonstration, the point of which is to show customers that they really need those nuclear reactors, even if they are on the verge of rendering the Tohoku region radioactive. Though the article’s tone is cynical, anti-nuclear forces have been accusing Tepco of essentially the same PR strategy for years. Faced with another serious power shortage in 2003, Tepco threatened blackouts unless customers cut back after the company was forced to shut down reactors for emergency inspections in light of a safety scandal.

Electricity users in the Kanto region are already dealing with periodic power outages to save energy, and because we’re doing as we’re told, some planned outages have been canceled. The problem with generating electricity over a conventional power grid is that once you generate it you can’t recover any that isn’t used. And unlike thermal generators that use fossil fuels, nuclear reactors cannot be turned up or down at will. Once they are operating it takes months to turn them off. Tepco’s output is basically a blend of constant nuclear power and fluctuating thermal and other forms of power generation. The 10 Fukushima reactors provided 14 percent of Tepco’s power, about 50 million kilowatts.

Average power consumption at any given moment during March in the Kanto region is estimated at 47 million kw. This is far less than the 65 million kw that are normally consumed during the peak days of summer, when air conditioners are on, but last Monday, when Tepco launched the planned blackouts, the maximum output available was 31 million kw, so Tepco had to convince homes and businesses to use less than that. If they didn’t, they would have to cut power to the designated “groups.”

Monday, things went fine, mainly owing to the fact that many factories suspended activities for the day and railways cut service between 10 and 60 percent. Only 90 percent of the available output was used. But then the weather got colder as the week progressed and TEPCO became nervous. Normally, with each degree drop in temperature, electricity consumption increases by 1 million kw. Monday the temperature was 16.8 degrees in Tokyo. On Thursday it was 5.8 degrees. Consequently, Thursday morning, with 33.5 million kw of output available, usage was 99.4 percent, thus causing Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda to plead with consumers to conserve even more, since peak usage for the day usually occurs between 6 and 8 in the evening. Thanks to people’s efforts (and to companies who sent employees home early), consumption dropped to only 90 percent during the target two-hour period.

People should be commended, but obviously the Kanto area can’t sustain its economy if this continues for a long time. For sure, there are everyday things that households can do to conserve electricity. Unplugging the TV when not in use can save 6 percent on a daily basis; the air conditioner 10 percent. Even closing the lid on your warm-seat toilet can save between 11 and 19 percent.

However, one important aspect of these power outages that no one mentions is that Tepco and other power companies have been promoting greater electricity use for years with their “all-electric” campaigns. New homes and condominiums now come outfitted with all-electric facilities, meaning electric floor heating, electric ranges (including IH), and electric climate control. Had such a crisis happened, say, 20 years ago Tepco might not have had to plan any blackouts since then the majority of Japanese homes were heated by gas or kerosene. Now, more than 25 percent of a home’s electricity needs during the cold months are heating (refrigerators are second at 16 percent). This is a direct result of power companies’ sales strategy, which is to persuade more homes to use more electrical devices so that the companies can sell more electricity to them.

All Japan’s power utilities are listed private companies, which essentially means that Tepco’s call for people to conserve is actually anti-productive from a business perspective. Ideally, people should be using 99.99 percent of output, since that’s an efficient use of power. Thursday evening, when people only used 90 percent, that remaining 10 percent was not “saved” in any way. It was just lost. If there’s a more convincing argument for the development of the so-called smart-grid system other than to do away with nuclear power, we don’t know what it is.

In order to compensate for the lost Fukushima reactors, Tepco says it will restart several thermal generators (oil, liquid natural gas) and buy more power from independent providers (including homes with solar collectors who sell their surplus back to Tepco). In the past, when they ran low, Tepco even bought power from Tohoku Electric Power Co. In fact, the electricity used to convey cooling water to the Fukushima reactors was provided by Tohoku, and there’s the ultimate irony. Tohoku Electric powered the plants that made electricity for Tokyo.

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