May 23, 2024

Japan’s Electricity Shortage to Last Months

Shorthand should not be confused with short term. Utility experts and economists say it will take many months, possibly into next year, to get anywhere close to restoring full power.

The places most affected are not only in the earthquake-ravaged area but also in the economically crucial region closer to Tokyo, which is having to ration power because of the big chunk of the nation’s electrical generating capacity that was knocked out by the quake or washed away by the tsunami.

Besides the dangerously disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, three other nuclear plants, six coal-fired plants and 11 oil-fired power plants were initially shut down, according to PFC Energy, an international consulting firm.

By some measures, as much as 20 percent of the total generating capacity of the region’s dominant utility, the Tokyo Electric Power Company — or an estimated 11 percent of Japan’s total power — is out of service.

Until all the lost or suspended generating capacity is replaced, economists say, factories will operate at reduced levels, untold numbers of cars and other products will go unbuilt and legions of shoppers will cut back their buying — all taking a big toll on Japan’s economy.

The greater Tokyo region represents one-third of the nation’s economic output.

Masaaki Kanno, chief economist at JPMorgan Securities Japan, estimates that the country’s gross domestic product will shrink in the second quarter by about 3 percent on an annualized basis, with about half of that decline resulting from the power shortage.

A recovery will gradually begin to take hold in the third quarter, he said, as the need to rebuild the northeast portion of Japan’s main island, Honshu, acts as a major economic stimulus. But the power shortage will be a drag on economic growth for some time to come.

“We hadn’t initially expected the quake to impact the national economy to this degree,” Mr. Kanno said. But the lingering power shortages will be widespread, he said. Besides the direct effects on businesses, consumers “won’t go out as much and they’ll have to get home earlier,” he said, meaning they will not spend as much.

Tokyo Electric has been using rolling blackouts of up to three hours in designated zones to balance demand and supply. The cuts have at times been poorly communicated, further disrupting businesses already reeling from logistical problems and damage to factories in the north.

And Tokyo, more than most places in Japan, is highly dependent on electric trains and subways for commuting, so when there are blackouts, lots of people cannot get to work or easily organize their days.

“In the short term, it will be very difficult to make up the loss of power from the Daiichi plant,” Masakazu Toyoda, chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, a research organization affiliated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said. “At the summer peak, the shortfall will be in the 10 percent to 20 percent range.”

Tokyo Electric now has an operating capacity of 37 gigawatts and expects to be back up to about 54 gigawatts by summer, according to PFC Energy. (Each gigawatt is sufficient to power about 250,000 Japanese households.)

But Tokyo Electric’s peak summer demand is usually 60 gigawatts, according to PFC, meaning at least a 10 percent shortfall. Some economists say privately that the shortfall could turn out to be more than twice that large.

Tokyo Electric is trying to make up the lost generating capacity by restarting shuttered plants, repairing the damaged ones, tapping hydropower reserves and temporarily operating gas turbines. But summer blackouts are inevitable, with plans for many areas to go without electricity for an hour or two at the hottest part of the day.

Ken Belson contributed reporting.

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