Effective measures needed to ensure sufficient supply of electric power

The supply and demand situation for electricity is expected to be tight this summer. The government must do its best to prepare so that there is no shortage of electric power, which supports people’s daily lives.

According to the supply and demand outlook from the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, the “reserve margin,” which indicates how much excess capacity there is in the power supply, will remain in the 3% range in most regions — except for Hokkaido and Okinawa — in July and August.

A reserve margin of 8% is considered to indicate a stable supply, and it is essential to secure at least 3%. The ministry said the situation would be the most severe in recent years.

As of March this year, the organization that coordinates electricity supply nationwide predicted that the margin would be 7.5% in the service areas of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. in July, based on average weather conditions. However, the latest prediction was lower, in the 3% range, because it was based on the assumption that this summer will see a once-in-a-decade heat wave.

It is only natural to take countermeasures by assuming the situation will be serious.

If demand for electricity exceeds supply, there is a risk of large-scale blackouts. The government is advising the public to use their air conditioning as usual and to help conserve energy to a reasonable extent. If the reserve margin is likely to fall below 3%, the government plans to issue an alert and ask people to save electricity.

The government must decide quickly when issuing an alert and provide the public with information, including specific ways to save electricity, in an easy-to-understand manner.

The tight power supply is caused by the successive closures and suspensions of thermal power plants. There are about 160 thermal power plants owned by major electric power companies across the country, but 10 plants that were operating last summer have been shut down temporarily or permanently due to aging and other factors, and three have been halted due to equipment damage.

There is also the fact that it has become difficult for power companies to maintain power plants with low profitability because the companies are strapped financially due to fierce competition amid the deregulation of the electric power industry.

From now on, coal-fired power plants, which emit a lot of greenhouse gases, will have to be reduced in order to decarbonize. Thermal power plants fueled by liquefied natural gas also emit carbon dioxide, making it difficult for companies to invest in thermal power on a large scale.

The percentage of electricity generated from renewable energy sources such as solar power is currently 18% and needs to be increased, but solar power is affected by weather conditions, which leads to an unstable supply.

For the time being, each power company is trying to increase the amount of thermal power output by staggering the repair schedules of their plants, among other measures. But this is not a sustainable approach.

Nuclear power, whose output is stable, is a viable option. A study group of the Liberal Democratic Party has put together a proposal calling for the utilization of nuclear power. Some in the party are calling for the development of advanced small reactors. Politicians have a responsibility to convince the public of the necessity of nuclear power and gain their understanding.

The government and the ruling parties should strongly support the restart of nuclear power plants.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 31, 2021.