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Japanese turn down heat, lights as power cuts loom after earthquake

The 7.4-magnitude earthquake last week off the northeastern coast hit six power plants, knocking them out of operation with damage that could leave some of them idle for months.
Image: Tokyo Tower is illuminated only in the lower-half part in response to the government's request to save electricity in Tokyo
Tokyo Tower is illuminated only in the lower-half part in response to the government's request to save electricity on Tuesday. Issei Kato / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Neon signs were turned off, lights dimmed and thermostats dialed down in Japan on Tuesday after the government issued an urgent call to save energy, warning of blackouts after an earthquake last week caused a serious power shortage.

As snow fell in Tokyo and the temperature dropped to 35.6 Fahrenheit, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) said demand had spiked and up to 3 million households could lose power if usage rates did not come down.

“At this rate, we are coming closer to a state where we will have to conduct power outages similar to those that took place after the quake,” Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Koichi Hagiuda told a news conference.

The 7.4-magnitude earthquake last week off the northeastern coast — the same region devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 — temporarily cut power to about 2 million households, including hundreds of thousands in Tokyo.

The quake hit six thermal plants, knocking them out of operation in areas served by Tepco and Tohoku Electric Power Co, and the damage could leave some of them idle for weeks or even months, Hagiuda said.

Hagiuda called for an additional 5 percent or so of power savings every hour from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. local time, equivalent to about 2 million kilowatts per hour.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno earlier called on residents in eastern Japan impacted by the power crisis to do their part.

“We request your cooperation ... such as by lowering your thermostats ... and switching off any unnecessary lights,” he told a news conference.

Numerous users responded to the call.

National broadcaster NHK dimmed its studio lights while electronics retailer Bic Camera turned off about half of the televisions at dozens of its stores.

The 634-metre Tokyo Skytree tower turned off its lights for the whole day for the first time and operators of the city-center Tokyo Tower lit up only its bottom half.

Retail giant Seven & I Holdings said 8,500 7-Eleven stores set their thermostats to 68 F— one degree cooler than usual — while its Ito-Yokado supermarkets were dimming their lights by 10 percent.

Nissan Motor said it was using an in-house power generator for 13 hours at its factory north of the capital.

Many individual consumers also did their bit.

“I use the heater a lot so I will try to do my part to save energy,” said college student Shuntaro Ishinabe, 22.

Government spokesperson Matsuno said the request to save energy was unlikely to extend beyond Tuesday given the expected rise in temperatures and the addition of more solar power generation as the weather improved.

Japan has faced a tough energy market since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami crippled Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl and leading to the suspension of operations at most of Japanese nuclear reactors.

With energy prices surging on tight global supply and the Ukraine war, Japan’s biggest business lobby, Keidanren, has been calling for a swift restart of the nuclear plants.

“A sudden halt of energy causes a lot of problems, and I think (the general public) has really felt the importance of energy security given recent events,” Keidanren Chairman Masakazu Tokura said.

“Given the larger trend to become carbon neutral and cut back on greenhouse gases, I believe there will be more difficulties unless we restart nuclear power plants swiftly.”