A Country Divided: Japan's Electric Bottleneck Rolling blackouts in the Tokyo area are crippling businesses as diverse as automakers and fishmongers. The blackouts could continue for months, even years, as Japan struggles to bridge the gap between different power grids operating in its eastern and western regions.
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A Country Divided: Japan's Electric Bottleneck

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A Country Divided: Japan's Electric Bottleneck


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Rolling blackouts are expected to continue in the Tokyo area for months. That's largely because of the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture.

The giant utility that serves the region, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, has lost 20 percent of its power capacity.

As NPR's John Ydstie reports, the blackouts are crippling businesses, from auto producers to fishmongers.

JOHN YDSTIE: Even on a slow day, Tsukiji market, the world's largest fish market, is a beehive of activity. Motorized carts buzz down narrow aisles carrying tuna carcasses. They're sawed into chunks and shipped to restaurants in Tokyo and around the world.

Normally, these aisles would be jammed with buyers. Today they're empty. Mr. Kaoru, a wholesaler, blames the blackouts.

Mr. KAORU (Wholesaler): (Through translator) I predict one-third of the wholesalers in the market will close the shop, the business. Main reason is the power source.

YDSTIE: The rolling blackouts are reducing train service, making commuting unpredictable, so people don't stay downtown eating and drinking after work. The result is fish sales at Tsukiji are down about 50 percent.

In the morning, the blackouts mean some rail commuters can't get to work on time. That's a problem for the big auto manufacturer Nissan.

Mr. ANDY PALMER (Senior Vice President, Nissan): Electricity going down creates its own damage.

YDSTIE: Andy Palmer is a senior vice president at Nissan. He's trying to get the company's auto plants up and running. But he's plagued by power outages that shut down production and damage equipment.

Mr. PALMER: Certainly the power outages are something that we're having to work with. Obviously, it's partially a negotiation with the local authorities.

YDSTIE: But so far, TEPCO, one of the biggest privately-owned power companies in the world, says it can't guarantee power to anyone. TEPCO says, when blackouts are required we do not discriminate among our customers, whether industrial or residential.

The problem is these rolling blackouts could continue for many months even years.

Professor TATSUO HATTA (President, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo): This is a real problem for those factories which need uninterrupted supplies.

YDSTIE: Professor Tatsuo Hatta, president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says the situation might cause some companies to move.

Prof. HATTA: It's clear that from their viewpoint they'd better move their plant to the western part of Japan where electricity is aplenty.

YDSTIE: But wouldn't it be much easier to send the surplus power from one side of Japan to the other to ease the blackouts? Well, that's harder than you might think, says Professor Hatta.

Prof. HATTA: One major problem is that the east and west of Japan have different electric cycles and the capacity of the connectors are very much limited.

YDSTIE: That's partly an accident of history. Eastern Japan followed the German model and has a 50-cycle electrical power grid. The west used the American model and has a 60-cycle grid. Transferring power from one grid to another requires a very expensive facility. And there are currently just three connections between eastern and western Japan.

That bottleneck means the power transfer is just a trickle, even during this national emergency, and creating more capacity would take years.

Hatta says, up until now, Japan's big utility companies, including TEPCO, liked the arrangement because it protected their monopoly pricing and made them very powerful politically.

Prof. HATTA: The users of electricity like Japan Steel wouldn't say anything against electric utility companies. I mean, they are so much afraid. And also many politicians wouldn't touch those electric utility companies.

YDSTIE: Hatta says the situation must change to reduce the stranglehold Japan's utilities have on the country's energy users.

Prof. HATTA: One possibility is that on this occasion Japanese government nationalize TEPCO.

YDSTIE: The government could keep TEPCO's transmission lines and sell off its power plants to smaller producers who would compete to sell power to customers. For the time being, TEPCO says it's doing everything it can to secure more power.

The stakes are incredibly high. Power consumption normally doubles during the heat of the summer. Right now it seems unlikely TEPCO will be able to meet the demand, threatening more disruption for Japanese companies and workers, and greater damage to Japan's fragile economy.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Tokyo.

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