Disaster-struck Japan faces power gap for months

With an estimated 11 percent of total power out of service, Tokyo rations power

TOKYO — The term “rolling blackouts” has become shorthand for noting one way Japan is trying to cope with its national calamity.

Shorthand should not be confused with short term. Utility experts and economists say it will take many months, possibly into next year, to get anywhere close to restoring full power.

The places most affected are not only in the earthquake-ravaged area, but also in the economically crucial region closer to Tokyo, which is having to ration power because of the big chunk of the nation’s electrical generating capacity that was knocked out by the quake or washed away by the tsunami.

Besides the dangerously disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, three other nuclear plants, six coal-fired plants, and 11 oil-fired power plants were initially shut down, according to PFC Energy, an international consulting firm.

By some measures, as much as 20 percent of the total generating capacity of the region’s dominant utility, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. — or an estimated 11 percent of Japan’s total power — is out of service.

Until all the lost or suspended generating capacity is replaced, economists say, factories will operate at reduced levels, untold numbers of cars and other products will go unbuilt and legions of shoppers will cut back their buying — all taking a big toll on Japan’s economy.

The greater Tokyo region represents one-third of the nation’s economic output.

Masaaki Kanno, chief economist at JPMorgan Securities Japan, estimates that the country’s gross domestic product will shrink in the second quarter by about 3 percent on an annualized basis, with about half of that decline resulting from the power shortage.

A recovery will gradually begin to take hold in the third quarter, he said, as the need to rebuild the northeast portion of Japan’s main island, Honshu, acts as a major economic stimulus. But the power shortage will be a drag on economic growth for some time to come.

“We hadn’t initially expected the quake to impact the national economy to this degree,” Kanno said. But the lingering power shortages will be widespread, he said. Besides the direct effects on businesses, consumers “won’t go out as much and they’ll have to get home earlier,” he said, meaning they will not spend as much.

Tokyo Electric has been using rolling blackouts of up to three hours in designated zones to balance demand and supply. The cuts have at times been poorly communicated, further disrupting businesses already reeling from logistical problems and damage to factories in the north.

And Tokyo, more than most places in Japan, is highly dependent on electric trains and subways for commuting, so when there are blackouts, lots of people cannot get to work or easily organize their days.

“In the short term, it will be very difficult to make up the loss of power from the Daiichi plant,” Masakazu Toyoda, chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, a research organization affiliated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said. “At the summer peak, the shortfall will be in the 10 percent to 20 percent range.”

Tokyo Electric now has an operating capacity of 37 gigawatts and expects to be back up to about 54 gigawatts by summer, according to PFC Energy. (Each gigawatt is sufficient to power about 250,000 Japanese households.)

But Tokyo Electric’s peak summer demand is usually 60 gigawatts, according to PFC, meaning at least a 10 percent shortfall. Some economists say privately that the shortfall could turn out to be more than twice that large.

Tokyo Electric is trying to make up the lost generating capacity by restarting shuttered plants, repairing the damaged ones, tapping hydropower reserves, and temporarily operating gas turbines. But summer blackouts are inevitable, with plans for many areas to go without electricity for an hour or two at the hottest part of the day.

In theory, the Tokyo area could import electricity from the south. But a historical rivalry between Tokyo and the city of Osaka led the two areas to develop grids using different frequencies — Osaka’s is 60 cycles and Tokyo’s is 50 cycles — so sharing is inefficient.

There are transfer stations, but they have limited capacity. And the hand-off is comparable to two railroads that use different gauge tracks and have to unload cargo from one train and reload it onto another at the place the tracks meet.

“The simplest way to solve the problem is through conservation,” Toyoda said, “so the question of how to encourage that with the least impact is on the government’s agenda.”

Ultimately, the need to conserve energy could force Japanese companies — already among the most efficient in the world — to emerge even leaner and more competitive. But that is little consolation now.

Toyoda said policy makers would aim most conservation measures at consumers, rather than businesses, because households’ share of electricity consumption has been rising for decades.

“In 1973, the ratio of electricity used by industry was 50 percent,” he said. “Now it’s just over 30 percent.”

The energy crisis has even led officials to consider the unthinkable: Instituting daylight saving time, something they have previously declined to adopt because it might cause confusion.

Industry, meantime, has recognized the importance of a coordinated response.

Members of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers’ Association — including Toyota, Nissan, and Honda — are considering apportioning full days of power cuts among themselves, according to the Nikkei newspaper, as they seek to avoid power cuts that wreak havoc on manufacturing equipment.

Hirokazu Furukawa, an association spokesman, confirmed that the automakers were studying possible cooperation, but he said that the complicated matter would require more study and that no deal had been reached.

In 2005, the Environment Ministry introduced an experiment, called Cool Biz Japan, to save energy by cutting the cost of operating air-conditioning systems in Tokyo, where the summer heat and humidity rival that of Washington. As part of the plan, thermostats in government buildings were raised to about 82 degrees Fahrenheit.

Setting an example, the prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, adopted an open-collar look that helped to make him something of a fashion leader.

But Kazuharu Aizawa, a spokesman for the environment ministry, noted that more than 62 percent of Japanese had adopted the Cool Biz air-conditioning goal, so the room for additional energy savings this summer through turning up the thermostat would be limited.

“Many people are going to have to turn off the air-con altogether,” he said.

Ken Belson contributed reporting.