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Japan's reliance on thermal power causes concern

No. 4 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture

Publication Date : 17-09-2013


There are persistent concerns about the problems that may develop from overuse of thermal power plants, as Japan is expected to depend solely on thermal power generation for the time being as it heads into winter with no active nuclear reactors.

On Sunday, Kansai Electric Power Co. halted the No. 4 reactor at its Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. It had been the only active reactor in Japan.

There are also fears that electric utilities’ higher fuel costs may lead to further hikes in electricity rates.

When the country was left with no active nuclear power reactors in May 2012, electric power companies became increasingly concerned about possible power shortages, as a surge in electricity demand was expected due to the use of air conditioners in households and elsewhere. There is less concern now, partly due to falling temperatures and widespread awareness of the importance of power-saving.

However, Yoshitake Kimura, who runs a gas station in Oi and chairs the town’s commerce and industry association, said he is concerned that higher electricity rates or power-saving efforts may put a damper on the finally improving economy.

Concern is high in Hokkaido, where peak electricity consumption in winter is higher than the peak in summer.

Last winter, a power-saving target of 7 per cent compared to fiscal 2010 was set for the service areas of Hokkaido Electric Power Co. at the government’s request, but the area was able to save only 4.7 per cent.

On Friday, the Hokkaido power firm began accepting power-saving ideas from businesses and others. However, an official of a food manufacturer that runs a large-scale plant in Hokkaido said the company had no ideas other than introducing light-emitting diode lighting.

Nearing limits

Electric utilities are operating thermal power plants at full capacity as a backup for nuclear power plants, but they are nearing their limits.

There have been 10 cases at Kepco in which thermal power generators stopped for a day or longer since April. This is already close to the 11 such cases reported during all of fiscal 2012.

In August, when demand for electricity rose because of a heat wave, the company could run all of its 31 thermal power stations only for seven days. According to Kepco President Makoto Yagi, the power generators “could not have been used any longer”.

Kepco postponed the regular checkup of its six thermal power stations this summer and managed to operate them by carrying out minimum repairs in the middle of the night or on weekends when electricity demand falls.

At Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashima Power Station in Kamisu, Ibaraki Prefecture, which has been generating 2.5 to 3 times more electricity than before the Great East Japan Earthquake, all six thermal power plants that run on petroleum have been running for about 40 years.

Station head Hirohisa Ishii said these generators would have been idled if nuclear power plants were in operation. “We don’t want to use them too much, but we don’t have that option,” Ishii said.

Heavy burden

Power companies increased their rates one after another after the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, due to the increased fuel costs of thermal power generation.

According to estimates by SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. economist Koya Miyamae, the proportion of living expenditures taken up by electricity costs in a household with an annual income of less than 2 million yen (US$20,200) increased to 6.3 per cent in July from 4.5 per cent in July 2010. Miyamae said this level will curb consumption.

Any delay in resuming operations of the idled nuclear power reactors may increase the possibility that rates will be raised further.

Hidemi Kamijima, who runs a small metal parts heat-processing firm in Ota Ward, Tokyo, said his company cannot save electricity because the plant requires a great deal of power to operate. “I’ll have to ask my clients to accept higher prices for our products if electricity charges are raised,” Kamijima said. “But I’m worried that will lead to a decrease in orders.”

Chubu Electric Power Co. has mapped out a policy to raise electricity rates for households in April. If more utilities increase their rates, it will place a heavy burden on the economy, which is on a recovery track.


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