Manufacturers left in limbo by rolling power outages

With Tepco's supply capacity in doubt, firms can't plan for future

by Kazuaki Nagata

The power shortages spawned by the Tohoku quake and tsunami are expected to continue this summer and maybe even longer, leaving companies whose production lines are already affected unsure how they will cope in the long term.

Renesas Electronics Corp., a major semiconductor maker, has production sites in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, and Kai, Yamanashi Prefecture, that have not been able to operate due to the power outages implemented by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

“For the wafer treatment process, a 24-hour electricity supply is generally needed,” said Renesas PR officer Makie Uehara.

Tepco has been implementing rolling power cuts in Tokyo and seven other prefectures. Each prefecture has basically been divided into five groups, each experiencing a maximum three-hour outage per day.

Uehara said an incredible amount of equipment in factories is needed for the wafer treatment process, and it takes about a week to restart operations after turning the power on, as they require a great deal of checks.

“It is difficult to start operations if the planned power outage takes place,” Uehara said.

The production sites in Takasaki and Kai, along with one in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, whose operation has also been stopped, account for about 30 percent of the firm’s semiconductor production, according to Uehara.

She said Renesas Electronics may boost production in western Japan and increase consignment production to cover the shortfall in the areas suffering power outages.

Fujitsu Ltd. said its factory in Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, which mainly produces cell phones, has been affected by the power cuts.

Masahiro Yamane, a spokesman for the computer maker, said the factory usually runs day and night but is currently operating only at night, and Fujitsu has increased production in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, to cover for the Otawara factory.

Yamane also said Fujitsu has a data center in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, that also sits in a power outage area, but the factory has been using its in-house power generation system, so for now it is running as usual. Even so, the situation could change depending on how long the rolling blackouts continue and the fuel supply for its generator system holds out.

Taisho Pharmaceutical Co. had to run its factories in Hanyu and Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, over the three-day weekend to deal with a production shortfall stemming from the power cuts.

“It’s not just three hours (that are lost), but also about an hour each before and after the cut to adjust machinery,” said Atsushi Eto, a public relations official at Taisho Pharmaceutical.

The Hanyu factory makes Lipovitan D and other health drinks, while the Omiya plant produces drinks and medicines.

Eto said shipments haven’t been delayed so far because factories have been able to reschedule operations to adjust for the power outages, and that will have to continue for a while.

Firms are unsure how to plan for the future because the outlook for power supplies is uncertain and whether the rolling cuts will continue in the current style remains unclear.

“It is still unknown how long the rolling outages will continue in their current form. If they continue for a long time, a different approach may be needed. With that in mind, we are considering (how to adjust to the situation),” said Yamane of Fujitsu.

The future of the rolling blackouts remains unclear, with industry minister Banri Kaieda hinting at the possibility of reviewing the affected areas.

And because Tepco has been waiting until the last minute before deciding whether to implement each outage, some analysts say companies would be better prepared if the utility would announce a more detailed long-term schedule.