- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
April 25, 2011 3:30 pm
If Shintaro Ishihara has his way, people in Tokyo will lose a convenient way to cool off in the sweltering heat this summer. The Japanese capital’s governor has suggested unplugging hundreds of thousands of drinks vending machines across the metropolis to conserve electricity amid power shortages following the devastating March tsunami.
Ever since the disaster knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and several thermal generating stations in north-eastern Japan, businesses and households in and around Tokyo have cut electricity usage by dimming lights, shutting down escalators and turning off heated toilet seats.
“My eyes are shattered,” says Yuichiro Kuwahata, a sales manager at NTT DoCoMo, the mobile phone company, which switches off the lights during the day.
Mr Kuwahata says the lights are only turned on gradually from about 4pm, starting with those in the middle of the room. Managers like Mr Kuwahata, who sit by the window, are the last to have their lights turned on.
One oddity of the conservation drive is that, for the moment at least, it is not needed. Output at Tokyo Electric Power, the capital’s monopoly utility which operates the Fukushima nuclear plant, fell by about 40 per cent just after the March 11 disaster. But Tepco has since recovered about half the lost capacity by repairing tsunami-swamped thermal generators and bringing plants that had been shut down for inspection back online.
Meanwhile, milder-than-usual weather has cut basic demand – so with the electricity-saving drive, Tepco can now deliver about 10m kilowatts more than the roughly 32m kW that Tokyoites currently use during peak hours. Normal peak demand in April is roughly equal to Tepco’s present capacity.
With the start of the air-conditioner season two months away, however, Tepco and the government seems happy to let people get into the habit of saving power.
Tepco recently upgraded its forecast for the amount of generating capacity expected to be available by the end of July to 52m kW, from 46.5m kW. While the boost was significant, overall capacity would still be short of last summer’s peak consumption of 60m kW.
Last summer was especially hot – the temperature in Tokyo hit 37 degrees centigrade in mid-August – but even in cooler summers peak consumption has been around 55m kW. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency’s latest forecast, this summer is likely to be hotter than average.
As a result, the government has dusted off electricity-rationing laws enacted after the 1973 oil shock. It has floated a plan under which large corporations would be forced to cut peak-hour usage by a quarter from June to August, and small businesses by 20 per cent. Narrower, voluntary restrictions would apply to households.
Manufacturers such as Toshiba and Nikon are taking their own measures, including longer-than-usual summer plant shutdowns, asking employees to work on national holidays and weekends during other times in the year to make up lost output.
Others are shifting production to unaffected areas. Honda, which had planned to manufacture its new Fit Shuttle compact car at a factory north of Tokyo, has shifted output to a plant in central Japan.
Recent reports suggest the government targets could be scaled back to reflect Tepco’s new projections. But some enforced power-saving seems likely in the capital and surrounding Kanto region, an area of 43m people that produces about two-fifths of Japan’s economic output.
Masaaki Kanno, an economist at JPMorgan, thinks the economy will contract 1 per cent in the April to June quarter and 3.5 per cent in the following three months. Takahide Kiuchi, chief economist at Nomura, says data suggest even a one-tenth cut in electricity usage by big companies could reduce industrial production by 1.5 per cent.
However, Mr Kanno says consumers are mostly following the national mood of jishuku, or restraint, and that recovery could be swift once the environment changes.
Meanwhile, companies are taking the prospect of power shortages seriously, to the extent of changing work practices. “If we work late, we use a lot of electricity, so we have to work as efficiently as possible during the day and leave early,” says Yukihiko Kitamura, human resources manager at Rakuten, an online retailer.
As for those vending machines – more than 1m of which are believed to dot the city’s streets and other public areas – companies such as Coca-Cola and Kirin, the Japanese beverage group, are resisting Mr Ishihara’s pressure to unplug them altogether. But they are keeping with the jishuku spirit by switching off their lights.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.