Energy tightrope walk must be avoided by bolstering power supply

The supply of electricity, which supports people’s daily lives, must not become a tightrope walk. The government and major electric power companies have to take all possible measures ahead of time.

There is a risk of a power shortage in February next year even if power companies flexibly supply electricity to each other, according to a supply and demand forecast for fiscal 2021 compiled by the Organization for Cross-regional Coordination of Transmission Operators, which coordinates the nation’s electricity supply.

The national average of power plants’ excess capacity is forecast to stand at 6.6% in the month, falling below 8%, the benchmark for stable supply, for the first time since the organization started to compile such figures in fiscal 2015. The figure is predicted to drop below 8% in July this year in the service areas of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.

If the supply of electricity is less than the demand, the power grid frequency will be disrupted, which could lead to large-scale blackouts, so preparation is urgently needed.

In January this year, heavy snowfall in areas mainly facing the Sea of Japan caused a nationwide tightening of power supply and demand, and the usage rate, which indicates the ratio of demand to supply capacity, temporarily reached 99% in the service areas of Kansai Electric Power Co.

Demand increased by about 10% from last year when winter temperatures were milder. There was also a shortage of liquefied natural gas (LNG) used for thermal power generation. A drop in solar power output due to snowfall compounded the situation.

The lessons learned must be utilized so that the same crisis does not occur again. It is hoped that the entire energy industry, including gas and oil companies, will strengthen cooperation to secure stable supplies of fuel.

When power shortages are expected, it is important to ask for the cooperation of users at an early stage. There must be widespread dissemination of information such as specific energy-saving tips that will lead to a reduction in the use of power for things other than heating and cooling, which are essential for daily life.

The aging of thermal power plants is one of the reasons for the decline in supply capacity. Major power companies are prioritizing cost reduction and reducing their investments in the face of competition triggered by deregulation of the power industry. As a result, the renewal of facilities has been delayed.

In fiscal 2021, thermal power plants capable of generating about 5 million kilowatts, equivalent to the output of five nuclear power reactors, are scheduled to be shut down nationwide due to aging and other reasons.

For the time being, it is necessary to make efforts to repair aging facilities as early as possible in spring or autumn when power consumption is low and to minimize shutdowns for repairs during periods of increased demand.

Thermal power, which emits a lot of greenhouse gases, should not be relied on in the medium to long term. The government is aiming for the mass adoption of renewable energy such as solar and wind power as alternative power sources, but their weak point is that output is affected by the weather.

The use of nuclear power plants, which do not emit greenhouse gases and have a stable output, will be essential. The government should carefully explain the importance of nuclear power to the public and support the restart of nuclear power plants, taking responsibility for these actions.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 6, 2021.