Japan’s Steadily Improving Energy Situation

Toyoda Masakazu is chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, which analyzes energy trends and issues recommendations on energy policy. Here he explains the current conditions and outlook for the future in terms of petroleum, gas, and electricity supply in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster.

Toyoda Masakazu is chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, which analyzes energy trends and issues recommendations on energy policy. Here he explains the current conditions and outlook for the future in terms of petroleum, gas, and electricity supply in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster.

Tokyo is one of many areas that have been affected by serious disruptions to energy supplies since the disastrous earthquake of March 11. We have seen long lines outside gas stations and rolling blackouts have brought darkness and power cuts for hours at a time to many areas supplied by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), mostly in the Kantō area around Tokyo. Trains have been operating on restricted timetables, disrupting people’s commutes and throwing factory production into chaos.

Many readers overseas will have relatives and friends living in the Kantō region, and others may be considering a visit to Japan in the near future. In what follows, I want to provide a summary of the situation as it stands with regard to energy in Japan and outline the prospects for the immediate future—particularly during the period of peak demand over the summer.

Petrol and Gas Back to Normal

First, the petroleum situation. Essentially speaking, the issues here have been largely resolved on the macro level. Six refineries closed down immediately after the disaster, but three of these have since started working again. As a result, throughput is back to a level almost equivalent to that before the earthquake. In addition, the government has twice reduced the amount of petroleum that private companies are required by law to hold in reserve, by a total amount equal to 25 days of consumption, from 70 days to 45. As a result, the fuel shortage situation is approaching resolution. However, improvements still need to be made to the supply network in many places directly affected by the disaster in the Tōhoku region.

More than 460,000 households lost their gas supply immediately after the earthquake, chiefly in areas supplied by the Sendai city gas bureau. As of April 4, supply had been restored everywhere except Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima Prefectures. Major damage to houses and supply centers, however, means that it is likely to be some time before the supply can be fully restored in these three prefectures. Liquefied natural gas facilities are all operating normally, with the exception of the Sendai city gas bureau’s facilities in the port of Sendai.

Electricity Supply and Demand: A Delicate Balance

The biggest concern is electricity, where demand threatens to outstrip demand. Thanks to strenuous electricity-saving efforts by individuals and businesses, it has been possible to avoid rolling power cuts almost entirely for the past week or so. The disaster and its aftermath knocked out electricity generation facilities totaling some 27 million kW of electricity in areas supplied by TEPCO, including the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. By securing electricity from other providers and restarting thermal power plants that received relatively minor damage, TEPCO plans to restore capacity to 40 million kW by early April. This would be a considerable improvement from the situation immediately after the disaster, when supply fell as low as 33.5 million kW at one stage.

The real problem, however, is how to cope with the period of peak demand from July to September. TEPCO is working to restore supply capacity to 50 million kW, but it is possible that demand will go as high as 60 million kW at peak times. Rolling blackouts necessarily cause instability and disruptions to the electricity supply, and there are worries about the effect this might have on industry, especially on facilities such as semiconductor factories that require power 24 hours a day. The Kantō region in particular is home to many factories that supply important components internationally. The government is considering energy rationing and other measures to ensure a predictable supply of power in order to minimize the effects on industry. At present, the private and public sectors are pooling their knowledge and resources to come up with a way of getting through the peak summer period. These efforts include ongoing attempts on the part of private and business users to keep their use of electricity to a minimum. At the Institute of Energy Economics, incidentally, we estimate that household efforts to conserve electricity could amount to savings of more than 4 million kW during the peak evening hours. (Written on April 4, 2011.)

Toyoda Masakazu

Toyoda Masakazu

Born in Tokyo in 1949. Graduated from the Law department of the University of Tokyo, then earned a master's degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. Since entering the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1973, has worked on energy issues at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and the International Energy Agency. Has served as director-general of the Trade Policy Bureau, vice-minister for international affairs, secretary-general of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy, Cabinet Secretariat, and special advisor to the cabinet. At present, is chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.