Warnings highlight insufficient measures to bolster electricity supply

Hit by a cold wave, the Kanto region has fallen into the worst power crisis since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The government and electric power companies need to seriously reflect on their overoptimistic outlook and take necessary measures.

On the evening of March 21, the government issued a warning for the first time regarding the tight supply-demand balance in Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s service areas — comprising Tokyo and eight nearby prefectures — due to concern that the balance could become extremely strained on March 22. It sought widespread cooperation from companies, households and others to save electricity. Another warning was also issued to Tohoku Electric Power Co.’s service areas on March 22.

The warning system was set up after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and is put into effect when the surplus of supply over demand for electricity is expected to fall below 3%, according to the government.

The power crisis was caused by the suspension of operations at some thermal power plants due to an earthquake off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture on March 16, as well as a sharp drop in temperatures. The bad weather also reduced solar power generation output.

Supply and demand must be always kept in balance to secure a stable electricity supply. Any imbalance will lead to massive power failures. It is important for users to cooperate in saving electricity as much as possible.

The government called for cooperation, including setting thermostats to 20 C and turning off lights in unused rooms. The government and electric power companies should provide detailed, easy-to-understand explanations to the public about effective measures to save electricity.

The situation remained critical on March 22, as electricity demand did not decrease as hoped. The government’s request for cooperation may not have been widely conveyed to the public because the warning was issued the night before when the initial weather forecast had changed.

When the electricity supply-demand balance is expected to be tight, necessary information should be promptly provided.

In an attempt to increase its supply capacity, TEPCO operated its thermal power plants at full capacity, asked factories and others with their own power generation facilities to supply electricity, and was supplemented by other major electric power companies nationwide, including Kansai Electric Power Co. However, even these efforts failed to meet the demand, according to TEPCO.

In January last year, heavy snowfall mainly in western Japan caused a power crisis, and power companies have been urged to strengthen their supply capacity since then. The subsequent response of the government and TEPCO cannot be said to be sufficient.

The government has been focusing on the expansion of renewable energy sources, mainly solar power, to achieve decarbonization without emitting greenhouse gases. However, renewable energy has a weak point in that electricity output drops sharply in bad weather.

While thermal power plants, which make up for this problem, are aging, banks and investors are focusing on decarbonization. Under these circumstances, power companies have not been able to invest in thermal power plants as much as they would like. The government should consider a mechanism in which utility companies are encouraged to fund the refurbishment and new construction of thermal power plants.

The use of nuclear power plants with stable output is effective in boosting the supply of electricity. It is hoped that the government will support the restart of nuclear reactors whose safety has been confirmed.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 23, 2022.