Map out measures to get through cold spells amid tight power supply

As the severe cold spell continues, the balance between supply and demand for electricity is again becoming strained this year. The public and private sectors, including consumers, must reexamine measures to avoid a shortage of electricity, which is essential for daily life.

The usage rate — the proportion of demand against supply capacity — in the service areas of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. earlier this month temporarily reached 97%, a situation that is described as “very tight.” The main reason was said to be a sharp increase in demand for heating due to the cold from greater-than-expected snowfall.

TEPCO managed to get through the situation by receiving emergency supplies from Kansai Electric Power Co. and other power companies. “If there were a glitch at any [thermal power plant], it would have caused a blackout,” Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda said.

However, it is difficult to say that much of the public is aware of this situation. In the recent case, power companies other than TEPCO had extra capacity, but bad weather could cause a nationwide power shortage.

The government and the electric power companies should inform the public of the tight supply as soon as possible and seek public understanding of the need to take countermeasures.

In January last year, too, there was a serious power crisis mainly in western Japan due to lower output from solar power as a result of snowfall, as well as a shortage of liquefied natural gas (LNG) used for thermal power generation.

Reflecting on the situation, electric power companies have responded with such measures as increasing their inventories of LNG, restarting aging thermal power plants and postponing the timing of repairs to their facilities. Nevertheless, the supply and demand situation has not improved sufficiently, and the risk of problems with facilities has increased.

Electric power companies are focusing on expanding the use of renewable energy such as solar power as part of efforts toward decarbonization, but the amount of power generated from renewable energy is significantly affected by the weather. The role of thermal power is important to compensate for fluctuations in output.

However, it is difficult to build new thermal power plants, which emit a large amount of carbon dioxide (CO2). Each power company needs to continue investing in the repair and inspection of existing facilities.

The power crisis caused by the promotion of decarbonization is spreading worldwide.

In the U.S. state of Texas, a cold spell froze wind power turbines in February last year, causing a massive blackout. In China, there were outage problems last autumn due to power shortages caused by the government’s policy of curtailing thermal power generation.

Due to such situations, the world is again beginning to look favorably on nuclear power, which emits no CO2 and produces a stable output. The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, is said to be clearly positioning nuclear power as an energy source that can help decarbonization.

In Japan as well, the use of nuclear power plants is essential for a stable supply of electricity. The government must carefully explain this to the people and push for the restart of nuclear power plants.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 16, 2022.