Companies vie for share of ¥8 trillion retail electricity market



Spend a few minutes to fill in a single-page form from a government website, and mail it in — that is all you need to register as a power producer in Japan as it opens its ¥8.1 trillion ($67 billion) retail electricity market.

More than 750 applicants, from rice farmers to billionaire Masayoshi Son’s mobile carrier SoftBank Group Corp., have signed up to provide electricity and compete with the existing 10 regional monopolies. Fewer than 100 of them are already supplying power to the industrial market, which has already been deregulated. They have almost doubled their share over the last three years and now account for about 5 percent of Japan’s supply.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes for the return of nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster led to the shutdown of the country’s reactors, he is also promoting liberalization as a way to reduce costs and increase grid reliability for residential consumers.

Canadian Solar Inc. and South Korea’s Hanwha Q Cells Co. have been lured by the possibility of getting a piece of Asia’s third-largest energy market. Increased competition may help drive retail electricity costs down by 15 percent, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“New participants are entering the market at a time when the utilities’ competitive power remains weak because there are almost no operating reactors,” said Moody’s Corp. analyst Mariko Semetko. “Competition in areas that include Tokyo and Osaka will intensify as new entrants emerge to meet demand.”

Japanese rice and grain grower Arima Co., a 10-person operation on Shikoku, registered as a power supplier because it is considering installing solar panels in unused fields, said Yoji Arima, the sales manager. The business is optimistic that revenue from power production could help stabilize volatile agricultural profits, which are affected by weather and price swings.

Yet entering the market isn’t as easy as buying solar panels and plugging into the grid. Participants must pay a consignment charge to supply customers through transmission lines owned by regional utilities. And, unlike a program started in 2012 that guarantees payment for producers in order to provide incentives for clean energy, participants must find their own customers.

Japan’s electricity demand may rise by about 22 percent to 1.18 trillion kilowatt-hours from fiscal 2013 to 2030 under one scenario, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said in a report. Sixteen percent of households plan to change their electricity supplier if rates are 10 percent cheaper, according to a survey from Nomura Research Institute Ltd.

In August, Japan rejoined the group of nations using atomic power as it swept aside public opposition and fired up one of the reactors that had been shuttered for safety upgrades after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima No. 1 station. The disaster led to rolling blackouts in Tokyo and helped sway public support for the liberalization.

Competition between new and existing suppliers may combine with lower commodity prices and the restart of nuclear reactors to drive down retail electricity rates when the power market for households and small businesses opens in April, according to Ali Izadi-Najafabadi, a Tokyo-based analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Analysts and academics are divided over whether liberalizing power markets always benefits consumers. In Washington, D.C., and the 11 U.S. states that have restructured electricity markets, prices have risen more than four times faster since deregulation, relative to national prices, according to a study published in the International Journal of Energy Economics and Policy.

Japan has already deregulated power markets for factories and large buildings, and the country’s total electricity market is worth about ¥18.2 trillion ($150 billion).

Existing companies with customers may fare best under new rules.

Tokyo Gas Co., the largest city-gas distributor, plans to enter the power business in April and will target sales in the Kanto region, which has been dominated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) for decades.

“If you’re Tokyo Gas, you already have a residential customer base in Tokyo, so all you’re doing is going back to those customers and saying, ‘You are buying gas from me now, how about you buy electricity from me?’ ” said Izadi-Najafabadi.

Tepco, Japan’s largest utility, announced a partnership with SoftBank Group this month to package power, telephone and Internet service. More partnerships may be on the horizon as companies bundle offerings to scoop up more customers.

“If someone can give you a package at a lower price with a whole bunch of goods, then that is what you are going to take,” said Joseph Jacobelli, a utilities and infrastructure analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.

“They want to sell packages, which will basically own the customer, then they leverage that up.”