The combination of an earthquake and very low temperatures has brought eastern Japan to the brink of blackouts in millions of homes. The authorities have appealed for energy saving effort: signs have been switched off, thermostats lowered and lights dimmed even in TV studios. But the problem of the electricity shortage is structural.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Eastern Japan is currently facing its worst energy crisis in a decade. For the moment the risk of a widespread blackout seems to have been averted, but the citizens of the capital have experienced three eventful days, including requests by the authorities to save on electricity consumption. Earlier this week the imbalance between electricity supply and demand in the Tokyo and Tohoku areas (a region comprising the country's north-eastern prefectures) had threatened a blackout throughout the region.
The energy crisis is due to a particular combination of adverse factors, some of which were well known to the Japanese authorities. Already during the winter, generating companies and the government had begun to keep an eye on the shrinking energy market, where demand for electricity had almost saturated the maximum supply capacities.
An early warning of the crisis occurred on 16 March, when a 7.4-magnitude earthquake shook the northeast coast of Japan and forced several power plants to suspend operations. The immediate reduction in electricity production forced authorities to cut the supply of electricity to several substations in the region on 17 March to prevent the supply-demand imbalance from causing a grid-wide blackout. However, the interruptions lasted only a few hours and by morning the supply was restored to virtually all of the 2.23 million homes affected.
A sharp deterioration in the weather at the beginning of the week, with temperatures in Tokyo again hovering near 0°C, brought the problem of tight energy supplies back into focus. Plants closed after last week's earthquake caused a loss of 4.54 gigawatts of electricity supply capacity, while cloudy skies in recent days have hampered solar power production.
On Monday evening, when electricity use exceeded 97% of supply capacity, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and Tohoku Electric Power Company rushed to the rescue and Economy Minister Hagiuda Koichi sounded the alarm, urging citizens and businesses to reduce energy consumption to avoid having to resort to outages.
However, the appeal fell far short of expectations and on the afternoon of 22 March, Hagiuda hurriedly organised another press conference to call again for saving money by turning down thermostats and switching off unnecessary lights. Meanwhile, TEPCO reported that if the energy supply-demand ratio had not fallen from 107% in the early afternoon, 2-3 million homes in the capital area would have had to suffer a power cut by the evening.
In Tokyo and surrounding prefectures the crisis was clearly visible on Tuesday evening, when many businesses turned off their signs and the iconic Tokyo Tower remained dark, while public TV also reduced studio lighting. Tokyo's city government instead set its office thermostats to 19 C°.
With the supply-demand ratio dropping to 93% on Wednesday morning, the government withdrew its warning. However, attention remains high and the government continues to call for savings, once again highlighting the country's vulnerability on the energy front.