For the past month, Japan has been facing harsh winter weather. Cities around the country are experiencing a long-lasting cold front, with the average temperature of 10 major cities dropping 3 degrees Celsius compared to December. Along with it came a huge spike in power consumption, straining the nation’s power grid.
Kansai Electric Power Company (関西電力; kansai denryoku) reported earlier this month that their power stations reached 99% use of its total capacity. Other regions were also affected, hitting over 96% capacity in the Hokkaido, Shikoku, Chugoku, and Kyushu regions.
Even more alarmingly, there were also a total of 216 “SOS” cases between December 15th and January 17th. This is when regional energy companies will signal to the Organization for Cross-Regional Coordination of Transmission Operators (OCCTO for short) that they are running low and need more power from a different region. For comparison, the total “SOS” cases for the entire year of 2018 (when the Hokkaido earthquake caused widespread power outages) was just over 100. In 2016, it was a grand total of 4 cases, making the numbers from this past month alone an anomaly.
Could Electricity Prices Spike?
With a shortage also comes a fear of rising electricity prices. Reports of monthly electricity prices rising over ¥100,000 due to the shortage, caused a stir on Japanese social media. However, this would only apply to “market-linked” (市場連動型) electricity plans. This means that electricity prices would move with the prices set on JEPX, Japan’s electricity exchange market.
These plans make up less than 2% of total households. And while they can be cheaper than the “basic” plans provided by major power companies, the recent power shortages have made the downsides fairly obvious.
TEPCO, on the other hand, calculates monthly fuel costs through a 3-month average. And since most households are on these basic plans, prices should not spike (though it’s still recommended to check, just in case).
A Wrench in Plans for Carbon NeutralityIn addition, Nikkei Business reported that solar power output dropped by around 40% over the months of December and January. Click To Tweet
At a meeting to discuss the issues, a spokesperson from the METI identified two main factors behind the power shortage.
First, current plans assume that “once in a decade” cold weather will only happen…well, once in a decade. Second, the country’s supply of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) was depleted faster than expected, reducing power output.
In addition, Nikkei Business reported that solar power output dropped by around 40% over the months of December and January. This is due to regions such as Kyushu — where many solar power plants are located — experiencing bad weather and snowfall. Renewable energy makes up around 20% of total power produced in Japan. The spokesperson later added that to prevent power shortages from happening in the future, they would work on fixing LNG supply.
This comes at a blow for the Japanese government, which announced only a few months ago that they would aim to be carbon neutral by 2050. Within their plans, they noted that they would achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions, with 50% of total power generated by renewables. But with many renewable energy sources being weather-dependent, energy experts say that the goal is unrealistic.
Additionally, nuclear power still carries the stigma of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. While a few reactors have restarted since then, there are still many politicians in both the opposition and ruling coalitions that are against overreliance on the energy source. For the time being, it seems that Japan is stuck between a rock and a hard place.