Utilities’ monopoly on power backfires

Kyodo News

On March 13, two days after the massive earthquake and tsunami crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, utility executives summoned more than 100 reporters to its head office in Tokyo to brief them on what Japan has never experienced except for a few years of chaos right after World War II — rolling blackouts.

It was a measure to restrict electricity supply faced with power shortages after a major nuclear plant and a few thermal stations were crippled by the quake and tsunami.

“We are truly sorry for our customers and members of the public,” Tepco President Masataka Shimizu said.

With Tepco the only company serving Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, one might think it would be possible to secure power from other power companies in western Japan.

But “we can only share little because of frequency differences between the eastern and western parts of Japan,” a Tepco executive said.

Japanese power frequencies are set at 50 hertz in the east and 60 hertz in the west. For power companies to share electricity, frequency conversion will be required.

However, there are only three conversion facilities, located in Shizuoka and Nagano prefectures, limiting the maximum power that may be shared between east and west to 1 million kw, a fraction of the capacity Tepco has lost in the latest quake crisis — 21 million kw.

This isn’t the first time Tepco has been faced with power supply shortages. It has experienced several crises and every time the frequency issue was discussed.

In 2003, for instance, Tepco was forced to shut down the majority of its nuclear power plants following the revelation that it concealed trouble at a nuclear power station the previous year. The power-sharing issue was highlighted then because of the increased possibility of power outages.

Nonetheless, power companies have taken hardly any steps. They say building frequency conversion facilities requires enormous costs, but one power industry official said, “If power supply systems in the east and west are unified, there will be the possibility of intensifying competition between power companies that are currently given the status of a monopoly in each region.”