Japan's dim capital faces further power crunch

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Sunday, April 3, 2011
— When a boiling summer hits power-starved Tokyo, even Japan's culture of self-restraint will hit its limit.

The March 11 tsunami that smashed into Japan's northeast coast, killing as many as 25,000 people and knocking out nuclear power generation, has transformed this usually bright, bustling metropolis into a dark, humbler version of itself.

Running on eco-mode in the cool spring invites few complaints as citizens bundle up, leave work early and even go to bed around sundown. Escalators are still, trains run without air conditioning, and popular night time baseball games have been suspended. Many say any complaints are hollow compared to the deprivation and destruction further north.

"Shikata ga nai," a popular stoic phrase meaning "it can't be helped," is frequently on people's lips.

But as the sticky, hot summer with daily highs in the mid-30s Celsius (mid-90s Fahrenheit) approaches and normally persevering Japanese reach for their aircon remotes, the government is bracing for electricity demand to jump, overreaching supply.

"I think it will be nearly impossible for Japanese people to live without air conditioning," said Atsuhiko Sudo, a 32-year-old filmmaker, walking out of a gloomy-looking Yodobashi Camera store in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics shopping district.

The government is asking industries that rely on electricity generated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. operator of a crippled nuclear power plant in the northeast to come up with plans by the end of April to cut energy use even more in preparation for summer.

The tsunami knocked peak power generation capacity at the utility known as TEPCO from around 52 million kilowatts down to 31 million kilowatts. About 5 million kilowatts of capacity has been restored at conventional plants, and the government estimates that restarting more of them will bring capacity to 45 million kilowatts by July. But demand from TEPCO customers is expected to rise to between 55 million and 60 million kilowatts from July to August, leaving a cavernous gap during Japan's hottest months.

About 9 million kilowatts of capacity may be gone forever as the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is likely to be scrapped and the future of the halted Dai-ni plant is uncertain. That suggests chronic shortages until new power plants are built. A government plan for the power supply that may include new plant construction is to be announced at the end of April.

"This disaster should be called a national crisis," said Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of business association Nippon Keidanren. "The country has to pull together to overcome it." The group has decided to coordinate power reduction among its sprawling membership, which includes the country's largest corporations.

The power usage cut expected from companies operating in and around Tokyo is likely to be large as much as 25 percent.

Office buildings are among the largest consumers of electricity, according to the government, but the area is also home to factories run by Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Nippon Steel Corp., and a vast array of small businesses such as pachinko slot machine parlors with blaring music and brightly flashing lights.

"If we don't have power, we can't make cars," said Nissan spokesman Mitsuru Yonekawa.

For automakers, the power crunch comes amid a severe parts shortage because many suppliers in the stricken northeast were wiped out or stopped operating as employees were killed while those who escaped focused on surviving without homes and basic amenities.

Nissan Motor Co. plans to halt operations at all seven of its factories in Japan this week because stockpiles of parts have run dry. Toyota Motor Co. Ltd. is now operating just two of its 17 assembly and engine factories, making only three models out of more than 60 that were in production.

Automakers could shift some production into the middle of the night, usually a down time, if it helps reduce peaks in demand. "We have some room to maneuver," said Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco.

Many companies with their own power generators, such as Sumitomo Chemical Co. Ltd., have fired them up to full strength, rather than buying once-cheaper energy from TEPCO.

Other companies have fewer options, such as Nippon Steel, which has a factory in Chiba prefecture that runs 24 hours a day. One plan to rotate stoppages among businesses would definitely cut into production time. "I think there will be an impact, but how much is unclear," said spokesman Masato Suzuki.

The power rationing should cut an extra 2 percent to 4 percent from the nation's industrial production this summer, Nomura Securities estimated, based on a similar electricity shortage in 1951-52.

A wave of "jishuku," or self-restraint, has already caused car sales to plunge nearly 40 percent in March and sales at some department store chains to dive more than 30 percent. In total, the quake and its aftermath should cut 0.7 percentage point off GDP growth this year, Nomura said, further pushing back a shaky recovery.

Tokyo residents, meanwhile, are resorting to a variety of individual power-saving tactics, which the government credits with helping make up more than half the shortfall so far and has led to a temporary halt to planned blackouts.

Yuichiro Kanda, a 40-year-old system engineer, says his company is getting more firmly behind its long-standing "two up, three down" policy of taking the stairs instead of the elevator for short trips.

When power outages hit his family of five in their suburban Saitama home between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., they ate and jumped in the bath before lights out. "Then we just went to sleep," he said.

Nonstop TV commercials, run by a consortium of private companies called AC Japan, exhort people to switch off lights and not hoard items in short supply, such as bottled water, and pull together to lift Japan out of this crisis.

Waka Imamura, a 21-year-old wedding planner, has been finishing her work early as the company has slashed overtime in part to cut power use. She sleeps by bundling up in extra layers of clothing rather than use her heater. But she worries about the mass effect of all the self-sacrifice, normally an honored trait.

"If we exercise too much self-restraint, it could really hurt Japan's economy," she said. "But we must do what we can to save electricity. I hope things will return to normal as soon as possible."

Last updated: 5:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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