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Out in the cold: How Japan's electricity grid came close to blackouts

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By Aaron Sheldrick and Yuka Obayashi

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The true reason is money, Osaka and Tokyo systems are not compatible which means the power companies have their own zones and no one else can sell it those areas. Ever wonder why TEPCO is the only power option in Tokyo?

Make them work together and open the markets to more competition and these problems will go away.

24 ( +25 / -1 )

Fat cats at every level of procurement and absence of modern organizations as energy system output is now global.

They have just discovered snow in their country ;)

18 ( +18 / -0 )

Also sounds like a self made problem so that power companies have an excuse to turn on nuclear power.

18 ( +19 / -1 )

Make them work together and open the markets to more competition and these problems will go away.

In some countries, you get a choice of energy suppliers. If your current one is too expensive, you just move onto another supplier.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

"We have a problem of who is in charge of energy security in Japan."

We have a problem of who is in charge of Japan, generally.

13 ( +15 / -2 )

Right now, as I type this, there are thousands of escalators in train stations all over Tokyo operating without any passengers on them. Many thousands of pointless and annoying screens in supermarkets aisles all over the country blasting out noise and images. Advertising screens in stations, outside buildings, all blinking away burning up resources. There are thousands of vending machines all over the country keeping drinks warm for non-existent customers. Office lights turned on over empty desks (or even on the sunniest days).

For some reason people outside Japan think that Japanese culture is in some way in touch with nature, it is not, it is utterly wasteful and wastes electricity all the time.

13 ( +15 / -2 )

The frequency in West Japan is 60Hz and 50Hz in East Japan. There is a small DC intertie to tie the systems together but it is very limited in capacity. Japan essentially has two power systems (and there is an interesting history why) so it is a very expensive endeavor to "tie them together" with sufficient capacity for major transmission of power.

After Fukushima I remember the "brown outs" in Kanto. What we did learn is Japan has adequate capacity without nuclear power....the problem is it is mostly carbon based....

If Japan continues to use carbon based fuels then the country is at the mercy of the overseas market as all is imported.....

Japan should continue to move forward with renewable sources. They should also restart Kashiwazaki Kariwa units 6 and 7 (Advanced Boiling Water reactors with additional safety) which are newer probably the safest units in the country. Run them until they are not needed any more.

11 ( +19 / -8 )

The greatest error of thinking was allowing two national grid systems to be constructed with two different frequencies. West and East. When its comes to electricity, Japan is like two different countries.

I have never been able to understand that.

Up to 2011 the country invested heavily in nuclear energy instead of diverging into renewable energies.

Since 2011 the electricity demand has fallen year on year. Last year was lower because of the pandemic.

When it comes to fossil fuels all the power companies are locked into lock term fixed price contracts so last years they were unable to benefit from lower worldwide price for oil and LNG.

This “power crisis” is another created by the power companies. To save some money they didn’t top up on their LNG. Oil plays very little part of power generation.

Electricity charges for domestic use are about ¥25/kWh and for industry ¥17/kWh. Domestic users subsidies industrial use.

There are government reserves of all fossil fuels which could have been released.

Power companies should have 3-6 months of fuels.

No company can pay ¥251/kWh.

When I bake my bread the electricity is about ¥25. With those prices it would be ¥250 making my bread ¥500/loaf instead of ¥200.

This country needs smart grid systems.

11 ( +13 / -2 )

Unbelievable there is not a national grid, the UK grid was set up in the mid 1920’s, nearly a hundred years ago!

If you are going to liberalise the supply market then the grid needs to be National so as to provide a level playing field for all companies and separate from the power suppliers. There also needs to be regulation to ensure a level playing field between the large legacy monopolies and their start up competitors.

I change my electric supplier nearly every year to ensure I am getting the best deal and the price is fixed for the year so it can’t spike up or down.

While I agree with others above that nuclear needs to provide a part of the energy mix but after 2011 that might be a hard sell in Japan. Also it needs to be new or newer designs that are safer than the existing intrinsically unsafe designs (needing extensive safety features built in and safety systems operating continuously, which is why they are so expensive to build and run), the old reactors need decommissioning and replacing

The other element is greater roll out of renewables but there needs to be a wider spread of energy generation, not a sole reliance on on-shore wind and solar. Geothermal is an obvious one in Japan, hydroelectric another but also tidal and wave power and off-shore wind.

One of the easiest low hanging fruit to pluck is to subsidise householders to insulate their properties, and install solar, and ground/air source heating. This will provide a boost to the economy, is labour intensive so job creating and has an immediate impact on the counties carbon footprint by reducing energy usage and reducing strain on the supply side. After the economic effects of the pandemic a boost to the economy is only beneficial and being from the bottom up has repeated knock on benefits.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

per capita Japan isn't the biggest user of electricity. That would be Norway, Canada and America.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricity_consumption

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Private businesses should not be in charge of essential services, like electricity. It’s time Japan stopped relying on imports for energy and stared investing in renewable energy.

8 ( +16 / -8 )

First, they need to separate power distribution and power generation in order to allow a genuinely open market.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

What a disorganised mess. Even in the day the government was not thinking about the future as now.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Huh?!? What?!? Wait a second?!?

Recently: ‘We weren’t able to buy as much...because of higher demand from S. Korea & China," head of the country's electricity federation, said recently....to keep the grid from breaking down,...Utilities took extreme measures - scavenging the dregs from empty LNG tankers -

but*, one year ago...January 10, 2020 8:02 JST*

Japan gas operators sell surplus LNG to China.”...Local gas companies are shipping unsold inventories to Chinese clients...now that demand at home has stagnated,...parts of China are eager to buy.” -Reuters

https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Energy/Japan-gas-operators-sell-surplus-LNG-to-China-in-dribs-and-drabs

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Solar panels and solar plants are burgeoning . Good in a way, but in fact, a lot are at the expense of forests here in Japan. And when cloudy, it becomes useless, Energy mix with nuclear as the base load is the answer. Without nuclear, Japan can not get away from carbon based energy

6 ( +12 / -6 )

The reality is my next-door neighbors, an aged farming community, generation after generation, hardworking, weathered and working, sometime 14 hours a day, tolling the land.

If they were to face blackouts, the outcome would be unthinkable.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

the government does not disclose the market data they need to operate

Whenever there is a problem reported in the news, it almost always involves government failure.

We have to get it much more out of our lives.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Pukey2

One big complaint I have is that the electricity switches off if I leave my kettle to boil for too long. I have to switch it off just before the water starts to really boil. Plus, it takes AGES for the water to boil, double the time compared to back home.

Sounds like you need a new kettle. Our little model boils in a couple of minutes and like all electric kettles are required to turn off when boiling is reached. You could use the type for a gas stove and will keep going until it runs dry. Japanese electric kettles are 1000-1250 watts.

In the UK the power is twice that of Japan. 110volts/220volts. Kettles can be 2000-3000 watts but they use more electricity.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

50/ 60z conundrum - explained here:

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2011/07/19/reference/japans-incompatible-power-grids/

5 ( +5 / -0 )

itsonlyrocknroll

zichi, please forget that last comment I am worry to much.

We lived high up in the Japan Alps in a very small village where the people knew how to survive whatever happens. They could survive without power but I reckon in a short time they would get their own going. They grow all their food. Plenty of wood for cooking and heating.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Peeping_Tom

@zichi

However, I was solely attempting to point out the risk of having one unified national grid.

Being an ex electrical engineer I can assure you a unified national grid is the most efficient way disturb electricity. Power generated in Scotland can be used in London. The power grid is just a circle with no beginning and no end. Power goes in at the point of generation and goes out at the point of demand. If there is a break because a power-line is down the electricity still flows.

You have the same system in your home for your power points which also runs in a circle.

With a smartgrid system power can be reduced where its not needed and increased where it is needed.

In Japan besides having two national grids but they operate on 50Hz and 60Hz which means sensitive electronic equipment can not be used on both systems.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

There is already a Japanese movie made about this topic. 'Survival Family' tells you what life will be when all of sudden goes blackout. Worth a watch. You may want to change the location or stock the can foods.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Solar panels and solar plants are burgeoning . 

diode - not only are they inefficient and undependable, you should hear what kind of ecological disaster they and wind turbines create when they need replacing.

Not only that, Solar/wind require 148x-536x more land than nuclear.

But powerful interests have made investments and want to see a return on those investments, environment be damned.

https://www.roadtoclimateneutrality.eu

4 ( +13 / -9 )

We have one small kerosene/paraffin stove on in the evenings. My wife uses a kotatsu. We keep one light on, and the PC and the TV. My great pleasure in the winter is to hold a cup of hot tea.

The power companies were asking us to cut down on power usage, but what could we have cut?

Do they want us to use our emergency candles?

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think this is the true reason why the government wants businesses to close at 8PM. They want less power consumed overall.

But the peak power demand typically comes between 4 to 6 PM. By 8 PM it's already dropping. There may be a connection between power demand and the pandemic because more people are working at home, but demand by teleworkers would drop in the evening too.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

One big complaint I have is that the electricity switches off if I leave my kettle to boil for too long. I have to switch it off just before the water starts to really boil. Plus, it takes AGES for the water to boil, double the time compared to back home.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

A little while back I looked up how much electricity in Japan was generated by geothermal power plants and it looks to be about 0.2 - 0.3%

Apparently onsen resort operators are a large part of the opposition to building more geothermal plants. They worry it will affect their hot springs and the presence of power plants will make their area less desirable to visit.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

OK. You're a conspiracy theorist.

The early closure requests were because of the pandemic, period.

3 ( +13 / -10 )

First, they need to separate power distribution and power generation in order to allow a genuinely open market.

Isn't that what they did? It’s happening in Chugoku.

Here’s a new idea, invent some kind of material you can put in your walls and stop letting uncontrolled hot and cold air into your living space. Close off those crawl space vents and use ventilation when needed.

invalid CSRF

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Yes zichi, family have been though may cold winters, it is there age.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

And then France decides to shut down the electricity mains supply.

France only supplies a small amount of total power. At this moment 6%. Other links to other countries.

https://gridwatch.co.uk/int

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Tokyo-m:

I agree. Absolute waste of electricity.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Peeping_Tom

Yet the risks at the source remain, don't they?

Well you could say that about any product or service. Power companies are in the business of generating power and selling it. With the UK grid system if a power plant goes down the others continue to supply.

In Japan, power is basically by a single company located within an area like in my area which is Kansai and supplied by Kansai Power Co. Basically the power goes out in straight single transmissions. There are limited connections to other nearby areas.

What if the source decides to do the dirty on you?

Never happens in developed countries. Maybe where the demand is greater than the supply like in India. Power on power off.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

With the UK grid system if a power plant goes down the others continue to supply.

But I think there are usually local difficulties when a power plant goes down. We see sometimes "domino effect" issues on larger grids where the problem extends to a wide area and electrical frequency can't be maintained. I think there was a case in the UK in 2019. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49305250)

In my time living in Japan (1980-1996), I don't recall any serious power supply issues. But the Fukushima event changed things dramatically with so many nuclear plants going off line. But it seems to be a case of supply capacity, and not so much a network issue. (Think of places such as Iceland where the network is small.)

I'm no expert, just thinking aloud. Please be gentle when correcting me.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

It Hz Japan to have two different frequencies...

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Interesting waking up to this topic - lots of sensible and realistic comments and a few quite mad comments.

Pukey2: You need a new Kettle.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

theresident, zichi:

Thank you for your input. Yes, the kettle is getting on a bit. I don't remember it doing this at my old place. It's as if the kettle causes a power surge when the water is boiling and the electricity in the whole apartment switches off which is so annoying. The apartment's protection switch is activated. Perhaps I should try a new kettle.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Really?*@BackpackingNepal 4:54p JST “there is a Japan movie about this topic: 'Survival Family' tells what life will be when goes blackout. Worth a watch. You may want to change location or stock the can foods.” *

Really? (“*...change the location..***,”) To where? Nepal? How do we get there in a blackout? What can we learn from this ‘great bit of cinema’. Most importantly, is it “On Netflix**”?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

There need to be a combined agricultural land management system, a comprehensive review, and if necessary top to tail reform of the co-op system.

If there were to be phased power outrages, the consequences to Japan's ability to sustain the food and energy supply would be potentially catastrophic, up and down the country.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

zichi,

I underhand fully

My neighbors have wood burning stoves they cook on them.

They don't actually need to, however they still do.

Age does not necessarily bring clarity to conceptual needs to differentiate between a pan and heat.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

There is no silver bullet to resolving Japans energy problems. I can understand why nuclear is a hard psychological hurdle for the Japanese to overcome. Unfortunately renewables will continue to be a niche player in the energy mix until some as yet unknown breakthrough is achieved. Like every energy source there are problems with renewables. Solar panels have a huge recycling and toxic waste problem that is going to explode in the decades to come:

https://www.wired.com/story/solar-panels-are-starting-to-die-leaving-behind-toxic-trash/

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Peeping_Tom

Thanks, zichi.

"Never happens in developed countries. Maybe where the demand is greater than the supply like in India. Power on power off."

Russia did just that with gas supplies to Ukraine.

Russia is "developed", even if that displeases us.

The talk in the British press was that Ukraine should have had an alternative grid/supplier.

We we were discussing electricity. Gas is another story. All developed countries generate their own electricity. It was very bad of Russia to make a contract to supply the gas and then turn it off over political decisions. I think there are at least two pipeline into Germany.

I actually support the idea of a Russian Japanese gas pipeline into Hokkaido. Japan needs to import all of its fossil fuels, Oil, LNG and Coal. The alternative was nuclear but that went belly up. I think renewable energy could generate 30% of total power but that still leaves the other 70%.

Norway is the only country which got it together with its oil and gas for the benefit of all citizens.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Pukey2

theresident, zichi:

Thank you for your input. Yes, the kettle is getting on a bit. I don't remember it doing this at my old place. It's as if the kettle causes a power surge when the water is boiling and the electricity in the whole apartment switches off which is so annoying. The apartment's protection switch is activated. Perhaps I should try a new kettle.

I have to say that a 1000 Watt kettle would not trip the main breaker, and there are sub breakers for different parts of the house/apartment and also for AC units. Even a short on the kettle would not trip the whole apartment. Sounds like you need an electrician to check your system.

I have to be careful at times in my kitchen because too many appliances on at once will trip the breaker. Small oven, rice cooker, slow cooker, dry fryer. I can turn on two of those and the kettle at anytime.

I also keep the original type kettle for the stove with the steam whistle.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Additionally, they could also invest in storage technologies (eg Tesla Megapack in use in Australia, pumped storage or flywheel) to smooth the delivery of power to the grid, rather than be very peaky only during summer days.

Japanese has the highest number of pumped storage in the world.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

TEPCO is not the only power option in Tokyo; Tokyo Gas provide electricity too, usually at better rates.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Prices on the Japan Electric Power Exchange (JEPX) hit a record high of 251 yen per kilowatt hour in January, equating to $2,390 per megawatt hour of electricity, the highest on record anywhere in the world. One megawatt hour is roughly what an average home in the U.S. would consume over 35 days.

But the vast majority of the new, smaller companies are locked into low, fixed rates they set to lure customers from bigger players, crushing them financially during a price spike like the one in January.

They played this game in California a few years back and prices only went up and were manipulated.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Power production should never be in the hands of private enterprise. Unfortunately in Australia also state governments have been busy selling it off for some years now, leading to various companies owning different parts of the whole production and delivery processes within and across states. Add to that differing views of State governments as to what production means they promote, and whether the Federal government supports them or not, and one ends up with a real dogs breakfast of a scenario.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japan uses less energy per household and per capita than Canada, US, Australia and France. Japan is half the consumption of the US per household.

When it comes to national energy policy, it may not be best for an open market. Open markets and deregulation do not always ensure supplies. They can disrupt supply since entities are at cross purposes when energy security is at stake.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@PeepingTom Only a tiny part of UKs power comes from France. One of the good things the UK is attempting is trying to become less reliant on other countries for power, around half of the UKs power now comes from home generated renewable energy. A lot comes from nuclear power, which I am not against if it is the only alternative to gas and coal. Laws that prevent the use of gas boilers for heating and hot water will kick in in the next decade or so, meaning other methods will need to used in new or renovated buildings. Wood burners are responsible for around a third of the most toxic pollution in London during winter, so hopefully those will be banned soon. They have no place in urban areas.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Private businesses should not be in charge of essential services, like electricity.

Because we are inevitably satisfied with how our taxes are spent, as an alternative? There are few things that I want the government to do when I could pay for it myself.

It should be made mandatory but the government want to leave energy developments to businesses and not individuals. 

As an individual, I had the option to spend a ton of money on solar panels for my residence, but the math didn’t add up in my case.

So no, please don’t take away my freedom as an individual to make my own decision.

Make solar affordable 

Who? Santa Claus? Your friendly neighborhood tax payers?

Stuff costs money. It’s easy to make irrational decisions when it’s someone else’s money that is being spent.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

zichi, please forget that last comment I am worry to much.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We BOUGHT it; ...we HAD it; ...we SOLD it and, ...we NEED IT BACK again.

Feb. 7, 2021: ”We weren’t able to buy as much...because of higher demand from S. Korea & China," head of the country's electricity federation, said recently....to keep the grid from breaking down,...Utilities took extreme measures - scavenging the dregs from empty LNG tankers -

but**one year ago...****Jan 10, 2020 8:02 JST**

Japan gas operators sell surplus LNG to China.”...Local gas companies are shipping unsold inventories to Chinese clients...now that demand at home has stagnated,...parts of China are eager to buy.” -Reuters 

https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Energy/Japan-gas-operators-sell-surplus-LNG-to-China-in-dribs-and-drabs

We PAID twice. Who profited?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japan needs a properly organised centralised exchange for wholesale electricity.

1) The government should issue that 10% of EVERY retail suppliers power offering should come from renewables. This would then mean that . .

2) The value of power produced from renewables then becomes more valuable than power produced from fossil fuels as it is currently a more limited resource. Which would mean that . . .

3) The producers of power from renewabled could then make more from this, and use the profit to srat hedging against price spikes by purchasing futures guaranteeing prices through the leaner months in winter.

Additionally, they could also invest in storage technologies (eg Tesla Megapack in use in Australia, pumped storage or flywheel) to smooth the delivery of power to the grid, rather than be very peaky only during summer days.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

So LNG stocks were not "topped up" prior to winter because the geniuses in charge forgot that it gets cold in East Asia...or maybe they thought winter would also be canceled because of COVID? Lol

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Just to add, I believe all new houses should have solar panels on their roof. It should be made mandatory but the government want to leave energy developments to businesses and not individuals. On sunny days, if the panels on the roofs are sufficient to cover the electricity needs, businesses will not make money

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

What we did learn is Japan has adequate capacity without nuclear power....the problem is it is mostly carbon based.

Correction: Japan has adequate capacity on days when demand is low and when the wind is blowing and sun shining, if the country imports tons more coal and natural gas.

The problem is that all of these options produce more environmental damage over their lifetimes than nuclear power does.

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

Solar is the answer, if it doesn't cost an arm and leg to own a 3 to 5kw system people could have their own power supply and not rely on the grid in times of high demand, Make solar affordable so people can take advantage of mother nature clean energy.

-2 ( +7 / -9 )

"I actually support the idea of a Russian Japanese gas pipeline into Hokkaido"

And leave Japan at Russia's mercy?

They've done it once already.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Experts say LNG stocks were not topped up ahead of winter and snow disabled solar power farms.

look a little closer people......you're getting closer......

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

@zichi

I am aware of imports from other EU countries), something our dear Brexiteers overlooked such is their extensive knowledge of everything under the Sun!

However, I was solely attempting to point out the risk of having one unified national grid.

Tanks anyway for ALWAYS backing up whatever you say with credible sources.

Something many could/should/must try to emulate.

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

Thanks, zichi.

"Never happens in developed countries. Maybe where the demand is greater than the supply like in India. Power on power off."

Russia did just that with gas supplies to Ukraine.

Russia is "developed", even if that displeases us.

The talk in the British press was that Ukraine should have had an alternative grid/supplier.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

"Unbelievable there is not a national grid, the UK grid was set up in the mid 1920’s, nearly a hundred years ago!"

Yes, of course.

And then France decides to shut down the electricity mains supply.

Really trying to understand why people don't get better informed prior to posting here.

-6 ( +4 / -10 )

Tokyo-m

Yes it's a Pandemic that's why those things are not being used at full capacity, But that's not a real solution to this problem!

Large, developed populations, at the cutting edge of technology Needs A lot of Energy To Keep Going.

China or America would never do what you say, but you want Island nation Japan to do it? Yeah makes sense if you want to see Japan doing worse and worse.

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

Japan needs energy security.

No natural resources, large population, island nation, hungry for energy, electric prices have gone up in the past few years.

Yet we should listen to the haters, critics, those who don't have our best interest at heart, telling Japan don't use nuclear, ban nuclear, use less electricity, let your economy be destroyed so you have the foreign approval on the environment.

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

"The power grid is just a circle with no beginning and no end. Power goes in at the point of generation and goes out at the point of demand. If there is a break because a power-line is down the electricity still flows."

OK, thanks for the clarification.

Yet the risks at the source remain, don't they?

What if the source decides to do the dirty on you?

-8 ( +0 / -8 )

I totally agree with all of the comments above.

-11 ( +1 / -12 )

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think this is the true reason why the government wants businesses to close at 8PM. They want less power consumed overall.

-12 ( +11 / -23 )

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