Tepco blackouts roll only so far

March 26th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

The Tokyo Broadcasting Service’s main nuclear energy pundit is Muneo Morokuzu, a University of Tokyo professor who used to work for Toshiba. Earlier this week, while a commentator on the morning show “Asa Zuba!,” he was asked by host Monta Mino about Tokyo Electric Power Company’s scheduled blackouts (keikaku teiden), which have been playing havoc with customers’ lives in the Kanto region. “These problems always have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable people,” Morokuzu said.

Home before dark: Machiya Ekimae station on the Arakawa line

His remark seems to be true, though perhaps not in the way he intended it. Since Tepco implemented power outages to save electricity after the failure of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor caused by the earthquake/tsunami of March 11, certain areas of the Kanto region have been purposely subjected to occasional blackouts. The outages are supposed to be planned and announced in advance, but so far they’ve been sporadic. Announcements are made and then changed on an almost hourly basis. Originally, the idea was to have “rolling blackouts” (rinban teiden), meaning that each targeted area would have its electricity cut off in succession, which sounded like the fairest way to do it. However, it never happened that way, and now the official name of the scheme is “scheduled blackouts.” The affected areas cover Tokyo and eight prefectures, with the blackout plan collecting disparate neighborhoods into five “groups.” But the neighborhoods were never specified clearly, and even if your neighborhood was targeted for a scheduled blackout, you often didn’t know if it was really going to happen until the designated hour arrived.

As a result, many customers say the system is unfair, especially those whose businesses are affected. The Asahi Shimbun last week interviewed a dentist in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward whose office had been subjected to four blackouts up until March 24, two of them occurring on one day. Obviously, he can’t take patients if he has no electricity, and thus is losing business because he can’t guarantee appointments on days when there may be a blackout. Meanwhile, there are dentists in nearby neighborhoods that have not been subjected to any blackouts. Dentistry is an extremely competitive business, especially in Tokyo where there are reportedly more dentists than there are convenience stores, and he’s afraid if the blackouts continue in this way he’ll go bankrupt.

The point is that in Arakawa Ward, only the Machiya district, where the dentist is located, and two neighborhoods of the Higashi Ogu district have been subjected to blackouts so far. Businesses and residents in those areas have been flooding Tepco’s customer service department with complaints, especially when they learn that of Tokyo’s 23 wards, only Arakawa and neighboring Adachi had been actually subjected to outages. In the original plan, eight of Tokyo’s 23 wards were targeted, but after Mar. 21 the number was reduced to Arakawa and Adachi. As the dentist told Asahi, he is happy to “share in the sacrifice,” especially at home, but feels the current system is unfair to businesses like his.

According to Tepco, the reason some neighborhoods in a specified district are subjected to blackouts and some aren’t is that the outages are implemented according to transformer stations, which don’t adhere to geographical boundaries. Consequently, one side of a street will have its electricity cut off and the other side won’t. And since the concept of zoning has never been much of a consideration in Japanese city planning, it’s impossible to isolate businesses from residences when planning who will be subject to blackouts. In addition, Tepco only carries out a blackout when it thinks it won’t have enough power at a given point in time, and it doesn’t know that until very close to that time. Consequently, it is always changing its mind.

That’s why the company has decided to subdivide the five groups into 25 smaller groups, each covering an estimated 2 to 3 million households, starting March 26. Supposedly, this subdivision will make it easier to spread the pain, as it were, though “in principle” Tokyo’s 23 wards are still underrepresented as a whole for blackout inclusion. It’s easy to understand why the central wards are excluded, since they contain vital administrative and corporate functions, and why Tepco has decided to not include neighborhoods with major train stations. But why are Arakawa and Adachi disproportionately represented? As it happens, Adachi has the highest percentage of public assistance for children in Tokyo, thus qualifying it as the most vulnerable ward in the city, and the one least likely to make an impression economically.

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