Japan to Expand West-East Power Grid Links to Reduce Shortages

Japan’s government is in talks with utilities to add equipment to channel more electricity from the country’s west to ease shortages in the east, including Tokyo, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami shut nuclear plants.

The trade ministry has started talks with companies including Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi atomic station, to add transformers to help overcome differences in operating frequencies between the two regions, said Noriyuki Mita, a director for policy planning division at the ministry’s electricity and gas division.

The ministry wants the conversion capacity to be added within two years, while utilities have said in discussions it may take longer, said another ministry official familiar with the talks, who asked not to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. Who will bear the cost of building the frequency converters is yet to be decided, the official said.

The utility known as Tepco supplies Japan’s most industrialized and populous region and lost 40 percent of its generation capacity in the disaster that killed at least 10,900 people and triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Japan’s three existing transformers are capable of converting 1 million kilowatts, or about 12 percent of the shortfall Tepco has forecast this summer.

Land, Power lines

Discussions with Japanese utilities include proposals for increasing the capacity of the existing converters and building new ones, Mita said. Land will need to be bought for new transformers and transmission lines, he said.

Building a 300,000 kilowatt frequency converter may cost as much as 20 billion yen ($245 million), according to an official at the Electric Power System Council of Japan, the country’s distribution regulator, who asked not to be named as he is involved in the talks with the ministry and utilities.

Companies including Tepco and Tohoku Electric Power Co. transmit power to the eastern grid at a frequency of 50 hertz, while the rest of Japan uses 60 hertz, according to Federation of Electric Power Companies.

German generators with a frequency of 50 hertz were the first to be used in Japan, and were introduced in the late nineteenth century in the eastern part of the country, according to the power federation’s website. Subsequently, U.S. equipment with a different frequency was installed in other parts of Japan.

Idled Plants

Japan’s three frequency converters are located west and northwest of Tokyo and have a combined capacity of 1 million kilowatts, said Satoshi Kurokawa, spokesman at the federation. The transformers are owned by Tepco, Chubu Electric Power Co. and Electric Power Development Co, known as J-Power.

Tepco could supply 38.5 million kilowatts of electricity as of March 24 and plans to boost its capacity to 46.5 million kilowatts by the end of July through buying supply from other utilities and opening idled thermal plants, it said in a statement on its website last week. The utility expects a shortage of 8.5 million kilowatts this summer as it estimates seasonal demand will peak at about 55 million kilowatts.

Tepco has been battling to prevent a catastrophic release of radiation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant north of Tokyo after it was struck by Japan’s strongest earthquake on record and the ensuing tsunami. Radiation levels that can prove fatal were detected outside reactor buildings yesterday for the first time, complicating efforts to contain the country’s worst civilian nuclear crisis.

The utility serves 28.62 million customers in Tokyo and eight surrounding prefectures in Japan’s Kanto region, according to its website. The region, which includes the cities of Chiba, Yokohama, Kawasaki and Omiya, accounts for 35 percent of Japan’s population and 39 percent of its gross domestic product, according to Cabinet Office figures from 2007, the most recent data available on prefectures and regions.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE