Major Power Shortages Loom Over Japanese Firms

People try to browse at a supermarket with no electricity in  Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Businesses are especially worried about weathering Japan's sweltering summers without air conditioning. i i

People try to browse at a supermarket with no electricity in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Businesses are especially worried about weathering Japan's sweltering summers without air conditioning. Vincent Yu/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Vincent Yu/AP
People try to browse at a supermarket with no electricity in  Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Businesses are especially worried about weathering Japan's sweltering summers without air conditioning.

People try to browse at a supermarket with no electricity in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Businesses are especially worried about weathering Japan's sweltering summers without air conditioning.

Vincent Yu/AP

The Japanese government says it may ask major businesses and institutions to reduce the amount of power they use by 25 percent this summer.

Parts of Japan have had rolling blackouts as a result of last month's earthquake and tsunami, which crippled a major nuclear reactor complex. But some Japanese businesses say the huge cuts being contemplated right now will be difficult to live with.

Most people in Japan have a story to tell about where they were on March 11.

Tetsu Tada was in the offices of technology company Nihon Unisys, where he works as general manager. Tada says minutes after the earthquake, employees didn't know what to expect.

"They were very surprised because there were [such] frequent aftershocks after the main earthquake," he says. "Every five minutes there was an aftershock."

No Neckties

That night, nearly 1,000 Unisys workers who couldn't make it home slept on the floor. The next week, Unisys let employees work at home because train service was spotty. Unisys also began taking steps to conserve power. It shifted its work schedule. It shut down elevators. Tada says men have been told not to wear neckties so they'll be more comfortable in rooms without air conditioning.

"The office like this — there's not so many things to do. But we reduced the lighting by 50 percent in this office," Tada says. "We can work, of course. But, you know, in the summertime, I foresee there [will be] some difficulties if there is no air conditioning."

Tokyo is sweltering in the summer; in many large glass office towers, windows can't be opened. Now the government says it wants large power users to cut energy use by a quarter.

Tada, who handles disaster planning at Unisys, says he isn't sure that's possible.

Japan's Electric Divide

Map showing which areas of Japan use 50 hertz power and which use 60 hertz.

Japan's electric infrastructure comprises two main power grids. One system, in the west of the country, operates at 60 hertz, like power in the U.S. The eastern parts of the country, where Tokyo and Fukushima are located, run on a 50-hertz system, like the one used in Germany.

Ordinarily, this isn't a problem — there are enough power plants in each of the grids that electricity can be shifted around if there are spikes in power demand or outages at a plant. There are also ways to pass some power across the 50-hertz/60-hertz divide between the power systems, but this is only available for a limited amount of electricity.

The trouble comes when there's a big, unplanned shortage of power, like what's going on now with the destruction of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Creating new linkages between the 50-hertz and 60-hertz systems is incredibly expensive and couldn't happen for years. So Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, which operates the stricken plant, is rapidly trying to secure more power to make up for the loss in production. Until that happens, though, Tokyo could see more rolling blackouts or other measures to reduce electrical demand.

— Andrew Prince

"It's very hard, it's very hard," he says. "As of today I have no idea, actually."

A Target That Will Be Tough To Meet

In fact, a lot of people here say the 25 percent target will be tough to meet. Japan has to import almost all of its energy, so it has learned to be energy efficient. Environmental consultant Rebecca Green, who lives in Tokyo, says that even before the disaster, many office buildings kept their temperature at 80 degrees or higher.

She says manufacturers have been encouraged to find ways to make do with less energy.

"The production processes in Japan are already very efficient," Green says. "So, to shave off 25 percent on the electricity side would be very challenging. So, again, we're really talking about shifts in production."

Outsourcing

Companies will have to do what medical device company Nihon Kohden is contemplating. The Tokyo company makes defibrillators that are a familiar sight in Japanese airports, schools and office buildings. Operating officer Fumio Hirose says the company is planning how to cut power use if it's asked to.

"We can outsource 30 percent of our parts to other factories in Japan, where there are no power shortages," he says. "We can also shift our work schedules, so fewer people are working in the middle of the day."

Hirose says Nihon Kohden can probably meet the government's targets, but he is not sure about other companies in his industry.

"Some manufacturers have clean rooms and climate-controlled technology, and it's more difficult for them to stop and start their operations," he says. "So, I have heard many of them may have to relocate within Japan."

Still, there is a strong sense of sacrifice after March 11, and Japan's businesses — like its people — say they are willing to do what it takes to cut power use. Their sense of common purpose will surely be tested as spring passes into summer.

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