In the previous post we talked about our decision to go all-electric from the perspective of not wanting to deal with gas any more. However, this reasoning should not be taken as an unconditional endorsement of all-electric houses. Electricity is what it is—electrons moving in a certain way to transfer energy—and is separate in meaning from how it is produced. Natural gas is a substance whose mining and combustion have negative effects on the biosphere. Electricity is not a substance, so the issue surrounding electric power is how it is derived, and since we weren’t going to install solar panels—a choice that, at the time, was based on our financial outlook, and one we now regret—we assumed that we would have to buy all our electricity from the monopoly that supplied it in our area, Tepco, because at the time the energy market had not yet been liberalized. So it was a devil’s bargain, since at the time (2014) Tepco generated electricity chiefly from burning fossil fuels, though it was no secret to anyone that the company’s main wish was to bring back all the nuclear reactors it shut down in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. We weren’t comfortable with either of these energy sources, and therefore had to live with the fact that we would (by buying thermally derived power) or could (by buying nuclear power) be paying into a system that was in some way unsustainable.
In terms of climate control, summertime wasn’t a problem since we haven’t used air conditioners for years, mainly as a matter of preference. In fact, one of the criteria for choosing a place to build a house was relatively cooler temperatures during the summer. Given that we still opted to live in the Kanto region, that wasn’t very easy, but we managed to find a plot of land within a wooded area that was two to three degrees cooler on average than surrounding areas. So the main problem was heating the house in the winter with electricity, which can be expensive. We opted for storage heaters, which tend to be more popular in northern Japan and along the Japan Sea. The units are large boxes filled with ceramic bricks that heat up at night using electricity and then radiate this stored energy during the day. This method takes advantage of two phenomena—the human sleep cycle, and Japanese power companies’ practice of charging less for electricity at night than they do in the daytime. This latter point is based on the idea that large power generators are always online, but that the electricity they produce at night mostly goes unused, so businesses and homes that can use that surplus power pay less for it. Of course, our storage heating solution did nothing to help the environment, but at least it used power that would otherwise have gone to waste. Our water heating system, called Eco-Cute (a play on the Japanese word kyuto, or “hot water supply”), used the same cycle—heat the water at night for use in the daytime. We’ve been happy with the storage heating system. There is one unit on the first floor and another on the second floor, and by adjusting the amount of energy absorbed depending on projected temperatures, we’ve enjoyed a uniformly warm house throughout all the rooms during the winters we’ve lived here, something we, as a couple, have never really enjoyed in Japan, as anyone who has lived here for any length of time knows well. Moreover, we calculate that we don’t pay anymore to heat our home exclusively with electricity than we did to heat our home with gas, kerosene, and/or electricity in the past.
But that may not last much longer. We recently received a notice from Tepco outlining payment changes for the future. The notice is supposed to be good news, since it essentially says that unit fees for electricity will be going down. However, the nighttime discount that we take advantage of for our heating uses will be discontinued. We were a bit taken back by this development, since the whole point of the storage heating system is to tap that surplus energy, but then we realized what it was all about. Some years ago, when we started writing about energy issues in Japan, especially with regard to nuclear energy following the 2011 meltdown, we learned that the nighttime discount was originally implemented because of nuclear energy. Reactors cannot easily be shut or powered down, and thus, unless they have to be serviced for whatever reason, they always run at full capacity. Thermal power stations that use fossil fuels—furnaces, to be exact—can be shut off or powered down more readily. So the nighttime discount became a normalized business practice in Japan because nuclear power by definition always produces a large capacity surplus at night. After the Fukushima meltdown, Japan shut off its nuclear reactors, and only 10 have come back online since, so the reasons for nighttime discounts are no longer as compelling, even though thermal power also produces a nighttime surplus. More importantly, as renewable energy becomes widespread, nighttime discounts become meaningless, especially with regard to solar power—the sun doesn’t shine at night, so there’s no excess power being generated. None of these functional aspects make our storage heating system any less effective in the task it was developed to perform, which is heat our house, but it does change the whole economic rationale for the system.
With this in mind, the concern earlier this week that there might be planned blackouts in store for parts of the Tokyo metropolitan and Tohoku areas due to insufficient capacity took on a special significance. As it turned out, no blackouts were implemented, but Tepco and the government are saying that we aren’t out of the woods yet, since a number of thermal plants are still offline due to the earthquake that struck on March 16, the main cause of the shortage, so if another cold snap occurs, there could be trouble.
What’s noteworthy is how insufficient media coverage of the problem has been. Before Monday, the public was not even aware there was a possibility of a blackout. When the quake happened the main news about its effect on infrastructure was that the Tohoku Shinkansen would be out of service for a while. There was no mention about the power plants that had been knocked offline. Then, suddenly, on March 22 there was a request to consumers from Tepco to cut back as much as possible on electricity usage because demand was expected to exceed supply, what with an unseasonal drop in temperature combined with icy rainfall predicted for that day. Apparently, it was touch-and-go all day as to whether Tepco would implement a blackout. At 2:45 p.m., METI held an emergency press conference saying that power might shut off. However, later that evening they announced the warning would be lifted the next morning.
The next day all the newspapers printed stories revealing that the electricity shortfall was a natural result of a decade of policy decisions that had left Tokyo’s power grid vulnerable. All media outlets told pretty much the same story, and blamed both the government and some of the major regional power companies for ignoring the problem for years. However, there were differences from one outlet to another in terms of what could have been done to avoid the problem or even solve it. The Japan Times mainly went with a Bloomberg story whose upshot was, inevitably, that while Japan has tried to move into the renewable energy field, the problem would not have been a problem if they had more nuclear reactors online, so the implication was that it was all about lack of will in convincing the public to get back into nukes.
The nominally liberal press took a larger view of the matter. Mainichi Shimbun explained the situation on March 22 in detail, complete with numbers and a timeline. On that day, 8 thermal power stations were still down and the power potential was 4.54 million kW less than normal, the equivalent output of 5 nuclear reactors. Tepco expected higher-than-usual demand due to the cold and rain, which also meant solar capacity was less than usual. It was the first time since 2012, when the current system, made up of new and existing thermal plants. became the main source of power, that such a crisis seemed possible—a crisis that neither the government nor Tepco had prepared for, though they knew it was likely. Last weekend, Tepco already knew that the electricity supply to Tokyo could be 10 percent less than demand, but all they did was place a warning on their home page. METI’s own announcement on the evening of the 21st simply said it had requested extra supply from other regional power companies to make up for the shortfall. According to Mainichi there was no “sense of crisis” imparted in the announcement. Nevertheless, some companies got the hint and decided to suspend factory operations the next day, which wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. Since the advent of the pandemic, many companies, especially those who work out of offices, had cut back on their own power usage by allowing employees to work at home. But some larger companies, like automotive makers, need more time to make such adjustments, and overnight wasn’t enough.
One of the primary long-term factors, according to Mainichi, was the former power monopolies’ approach to retail liberalization in 2016, which allowed outside companies to offer electricity to homes and businesses, the idea being to spur competition and bring down prices. Before that, the monopolies enjoyed guaranteed profits, but now they had to rationalize—or, at least, thought they did. One of their main directives was to limit thermal power production, since it tends to have low profitability compared to nuclear and other forms of power generation. Then, of course, Japan had pledged to cut back on CO2 emissions, which meant eliminating reliance on thermal plants. Between 2016 and 2020, METI estimates that Japan’s output was reduced by 1.76 million kW due to thermal rollbacks. This deficit should have been made up by nuclear power, which accounted for 25 percent of output in 2010, but so far only 10 reactors have come back online due to the government and the power companies dragging their feet in terms of promised safety and security countermeasures that have not sufficiently materialized, not to mention the public’s undiminished mistrust of the nuclear power industry. In 2020, nuclear accounted for only 4 percent of output, and unless laws are changed 24 reactors are slated to be decommissioned. And while renewable energy’s contribution to the grid has increased over the last decade from 9 to 20 percent, the output remains notoriously unstable—solar for obvious reasons, but hydro, geothermal, and wind, while potentially a more reliable mix, still isn’t considered feasible until sometime in the future since the power companies tend to think in the short term. Consequently, according to Mainichi, another 4.41 million kW could be lost due to further thermal rollbacks between 2021 and 2025. As one METI executive told Mainichi, the power companies are walking a tightrope.
Mainichi also fronts for nuclear to a certain extent, and like most other media highlighted the main business lobby Keidanren’s insistence that nuclear reactors be brought back online as soon as possible. The Asahi Shimbun, however, doesn’t mention Keidanren in its main article about what happened March 22 (it does feature Keidanren’s comment in a separate, much smaller piece), and tends to get even more granular in the coverage, especially when it comes to citing how both Tepco and the government didn’t seem to know what they were doing. The paper reported that on March 22, between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., when METI finally decided to hold its press conference, Tepco had only met 30 percent of its needed savings goal. However, after the press conference, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., the company reached 101 percent of its goal, so people obviously got the message, though with barely time to spare.
So the public came through when the authorities lacked the proper wherewithal, but the crisis pointed up how serious the power shortfall could be. Unlike Mainichi and other outlets, Asahi saw the problem as being less about generating function than about distribution. As mentioned earlier, METI requested supplemental electricity from other power companies, but such measures have limited effect due to inadequate transmission lines. Famously, east and west Japan differ in terms of electrical frequency, which means transfers from one region to another have to be converted, and that restricts capacity. This problem has been evident for many years, even before the Fukushima accident, so it mainly comes down to lack of government oversight and power companies’ not wanting to cooperate with one another.
But there’s another economic disincentive, which is that while these regional power companies no longer function as power monopolies, they remain transmission line monopolies. Any new electricity supply businesses have to do business with regional power companies to distribute their power. There have been 32 planned blackouts since the Fukushima meltdown, and all could have been avoided if transmission lines were shared more freely. And it’s not just about sharing power made by thermal generators or nuclear reactors. Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Kyushu are the most appropriate regions for solar and wind power and often have surpluses that could be easily transferred to regions in need if transmission capabilities were more flexible. According to Asahi, about ¥4.8 trillion is needed to double the capacity of relay lines, which could be easily raised by adding a surcharge to electricity bills.
Another solution to power shortages, albeit an emergency one that is already in use to a limited extent, is what’s called pumped storage, which basically works on the same economic principle that our storage heaters do. Surplus electricity generated at night is used to pump large amounts of water to the top of a grade. When there is an expected shortfall of power in the daytime, this water is released to produce energy in the same way that hydroelectric power is generated. Tepco has 9 pumped storage facilities that could produce up to 20 percent of needed supply at a given time, which means it can replace the solar potential during cloudy, cold days.
The difficult part of the moral that consumers take away from the March 22 near-miss is what they can do on their own. They could opt to patronize new power suppliers that deal more forthrightly with renewables, but they are still in thrall to the regional power monopolies to get that power to their homes. They could build passive houses and/or install solar panels for greater electrical self-sufficiency, but it still costs money and some homes may not be ideal for solar power generation. Practically speaking, there are only two things that conscientious consumers can do right now on their own to address these problems regardless of their financial or residential circumstances: convince their leaders to make a concerted effort to reduce reliance on both fossil fuels and nuclear power, and cut back on their own energy consumption. This latter point is not as difficult as it may sound. Thanks to technological innovations, homes use much less energy than they did several decades ago, though perhaps not enough to offset the increase in energy usage attributed to the transportation sector. But it should also be noted that following the Fukushima accident, when households had to cut back on power usage, they not only succeeded in cutting back but maintained those lower usage habits to this day to a certain extent, because we realized we waste a lot, and that it’s not a big burden to cut back. If, like us, you tend to feel guilty about the electricity you do use, there is, as Marie Kondo might say, a spark of joy in knowing that you don’t always have to turn something on.